Rare for intelligence officer to be whistleblower
Ispent 30 years working in the CIA’s Clandestine Service. During those three decades, I was never aware of a whistleblower anywhere inside the CIA or the broader intelligence community. Why?
There are two reasons. The first is because it is a deeply uncomfortable, counterintuitive step for an intelligence officer to decide to become a whistleblower. The second is because that’s precisely the way the system is supposed to work. I should never have known of any whistleblower, because the law is specifically structured to protect their anonymity.
President Donald Trump’s attempts to find out who alerted the intelligence community’s inspector general about his call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — and his continuing attacks on that person — betray how little Trump understands or cares about the government he’s supposed to be running.
Just the fact that there is a whistleblower in the intelligence community makes the situation extraordinary. We now know just how extraordinary: The president of the United States asked a foreign leader for derogatory information on a domestic political foe, something no federal employee should be able to overlook. It is difficult to overstate how great the reticence of an American intelligence officer would be regarding becoming a whistleblower, but clearly, this was beyond the pale.
This is as true for CIA analysts as it is for CIA case officers. We do almost nothing publicly, and indeed, if the identity of a member of the Clandestine Service does becomes public, it’s usually not a good thing. We are trained to stay away from the news media and the limelight.
CIA officers also understand that despite the protections against reprisals that the whistleblower statutes provide, blowing the whistle poses significant risk. Perhaps because CIA officers have met with great success over the years when stealing the secrets of foreign adversarial governments, we are understandably skeptical as to whether our own government can really keep all its secrets.
Even in the most justified case of whistleblowing there could still be a chilling effect on an intelligence officer’s career. Whistleblowers might be judged by their peers as either indiscreet, or worse, politically motivated. Neither is a trait an intelligence officer wants to be associated with in our world.
The second reason I was never aware of a whistleblower during my time at the CIA is because that’s how the system is supposed to work. When a U.S. government employee sees something he or she suspects is illegal or inappropriate, they can report it formally, in a special protected channel.
The key element, of course, is protection against reprisals by more senior officials in the whistleblower’s chain of command. There have been some whistleblowers in my world, but I never heard about them at the time.
Even the most secret government activity is not exempt from the whistleblower statutes, and if we want this particularly powerful brake on bad behavior inside the intelligence community to remain meaningful, maintaining a whistleblower’s anonymity remains paramount.
That’s a unique system, and in plenty of places Trump seems to like, whistleblowers are treated quite differently.
Look at Russia, though you can’t check with Sergey Litvinenko, as the Russians killed him with poloniumlaced tea. Or North Korea, where Trump has “fallen in love” with a leader who has those critical of him killed using antiaircraft guns. And then there’s Saudi Arabia, where those voicing skepticism about the government are subjected to bone saws or, like in a scene out of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” ritually hanged in public.
But Trump and his allies and aides appear not to recognize how important are the protections our government gives to whistleblowers. Instead, one of his senior advisers in the White House, Stephen Miller, recently stated that due to his extensive (three years’ worth) of work in the federal government, he was sure the CIA whistleblower was a “deep state operative.” (For the record, another thing I never saw during my 30 years at CIA was any evidence whatsoever of anything resembling a deep state or its operatives.)
Trump has recently proclaimed that he should have the right to confront his accuser, apparently completely missing the point that the rule of law in the United States carves out a special space for whistleblowers to avoid that very confrontation.
The whistleblower statutes contemplate in a very nonpartisan way a situation where a more junior official needs to call to attention the unacceptable behavior of his or her bosses. The nonpartisan element is a critical part of the statue, because while our current president is at least nominally a Republican, the next one might be a Democrat.
When it comes to whistleblowing, it is indeed country before party, as it should be.
We can now perhaps better understand why Trump is so convulsively worried about whistleblowers. He’s loath to have the details of his conversations with foreign leaders be made public, because in these conversations, he is engaging in behaviors that are eroding American democracy. The president does not want us to know the lengths to which he will go to protect not America, but his own ambitions.
Steven L. Hall retired from the CIA in 2015 after 30 years of running and managing Russian operations.
Steven L. Hall, former U.S. CIA chief of Russia operations, attends a House Select Committee on Intelligence hearing in March that concerned 2016 Russian interference tactics in the U.S. elections.