CIA Whistleblower Punished After Revealing Flaws in Intelligence Communication System

Government hand holding whistle

There’s plenty in Friday’s Yahoo News story about the compromise of a CIA system used to communicate with human sources. The Yahoo story is “based on conversations with eleven former U.S. intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive operations.” That qualifies as “well-soured” in almost anyone’s book. Had it been one or two sources, you could say it was someone with an axe to grind. But eleven sources speaking on background, plus the lawyer for a whistleblower speaking on the record, adds up to a solid story.

The most explosive part of the story is the revelation that Iran unwrapped a CIA covert scheme for communicating with assets in sensitive areas. The compromise of the internet-based system is believed to have led to the arrest of as many as 30 Iranian assets—with some later executed—and the deaths of another 30 Chinese assets. The system was designed to communicate with human sources in war zones. But as the Yahoo piece said, it “was not built to withstand the sophisticated counterintelligence efforts of a state actor like China or Iran.”

From a distance, it’s easy to say that case officers got lazy and relied too heavily on a system designed to give assets in war zones a quick method of relaying intelligence. But given the difficulties in using traditional means of communication with agents—such as dead drops—  in places like Tehran and Beijing, it’s equally easy to understand how they continued to use the system.

What seems to be unforgivable is that the CIA was told long before any compromises that the system was vulnerable. Had officials listened, it seems likely that the CIA may have avoided many of the “catastrophic” losses.

McClatchy obtained and published a redacted version of John Reidy’s 2014 whistleblower appeal in July 2015. Reidy worked on and with the communications system as a subcontractor to defense contracting giant SAIC between 2005 and 2009. According to this document, he was even directly handling communication with human intelligence sources. And he claims to have noticed problems with the communication system as early as 2006. Despite numerous attempts to convince his superiors at the CIA that the system was flawed, no one appears to have done anything.

Those Following Whistleblower Procedures Correctly Should Not Face Retaliation

Reidy’s appeal document is long and somewhat rambling. He warns of this up front, claiming that it is so because the CIA denied him the opportunity to seek the assistance of a lawyer with the requisite security clearance to see the facts of the case. He had to type his appeal in a SCIF, a secure compartmented information facility where the most sensitive secrets are processed, without the aid of an attorney to help him present his case most effectively.

He also seems to be a bit, shall we say, of a pain in the ass. The lesson is that you can be right, but if you’re incapable of not pissing people off as you try to deal with the issue, you’re not likely to get far.

But being a total pain in the ass seems justified when one looks at the magnitude of the issue. Reidy saw what could happen. He warned people what would happen if the problem wasn’t addressed. And his “nightmare scenario” came to be. Reidy believed his information could have prevented what Yahoo called, quite accurately, “a disaster of global proportions.”

One hopes that sooner rather than later, government managers and contracting officer representatives reach the conclusion that when a person is following whistleblower procedures to the letter (as it appears Reidy has done), that they simply cannot retaliate against that person with impunity. I will not hold my breath waiting for that to happen. What I will do, is continue to highlight ways the government is abusing those who follow the rules to save lives and money.

Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin

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