Much has been written about the prosecution and convictions of “CIA whistleblowers” for sharing classified information with those who were neither authorized to see or possess the information. As a veteran of the CIA of some 30 years, albeit many moons ago, I have first hand experience in the whistleblowing department within the organization.

The evening news rarely tells us about the dog which didn’t bite. Similarly, we rarely read about how the system works, and changes are affected when individuals follow established procedures. Which makes sense, in a warped fashion, given the CIA is a closed society which rarely airs its laundry, clean or dirty, in the front yard.

The CIA has not been shy about going after those who blow the whistle in a public manner. Take the case of Frank Snepp, a former a case officer within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. In 1977, Snepp wrote the book “Decent Interval” which provided his optic on the fall of Saigon in 1975, which he claims was based on an internal memo he wrote which was ignored from within the CIA. The book was not submitted to the CIA’s publication review board, and the CIA sued and won. The case was appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision and all royalties from the book were forfeited.

Step forward a few years, and we see Ralph McGehee who served in the CIA in its early years, 1953-1972. Following his retirement, he wrote Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA (1983), in which he catalogs his career throughout East Asia, with emphasis on operational malfeasance in the field. He did submit his book to the PRB, where numerous redactions took place. He posited over the years that the redactions were a form of retaliation. Subsequently he became and continues to be a harsh critic of the CIA.

Publish Classified Information? Prepare for Prosecution.

Then during the Obama Administration, there was a sea change within the Department of Justice and the White House, those who went public with classified information were going to be vigorously prosecuted. And they were.

In 2007, John Kiriakou, an operations officer with the CIA from 1994-2004, shared information about CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques. Kiriakou who says he witnessed the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah following his capture, shared this information during an ABC News interview. Then he shared one piece of information too many and in 2012 he was indicted for violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. He had provided the true identity of a CIA clandestine officer to a reporter. He pleaded guilty to passing classified information to a reporter and was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

Jeffrey Sterling found himself indicted in 2010. Sterling, also a former operations officer, shared information about “Operation Merlin,” a covert operation against Iran’s nuclear program journalist James Risen. In 2015, Sterling was sentenced to prison and released in 2018.

In 2015, we learned of the lawsuit filed by James Pars (a CIA issued alias issued to the person for the purpose of court filings and not the individual’s true name) against the CIA in which Pars claims he faced retaliation by the CIA for filing a complaint with the CIA’s Inspector General’s Office concerning retaliation. He then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity in which he claimed to have faced retaliation for highlighting the shortcomings of a supervisor, nepotism by the supervisor and how the supervisor’s actions allegedly placed the CIA field facility at risk. From this optic, Pars is following the process, first go internally, then use the tools afforded government employees (EEO for example) to take it to external agencies or the courts.

Each of these individuals had their own reasons for going outside the CIA to share their case. Some were very principled attempting to affect change, a few had a personal need to be addressed, and others believed themselves to be wronged.

In 2014, Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project (aka WhistleBlower.org), stated “Only someone with a martyr complex would submit themselves to this system. We advise intelligence whistleblowers to stay away from established channels to defend against retaliation. In our experience they’ve been a Trojan Horse, a trap that ends up sucking the whistleblower into a long-term process that predictably ends with the whistleblower as the target.”

I disagree with Devine. My first-hand experience is different. In my case the system worked. In one instance, a supervisor had falsified information, and in the other, retaliation of an employee was observed, highlighted and reported. In both instance others knew, but turned a blind eye.

Self-Policing Critical in Trust-Based Organizations

You see, in the CIA and other environs where trust is paramount, self-policing is required. I had no problem stepping forward. As Devine noted, I expected and prepared for potential blowback on myself by going via established channels. In both cases hearings were held, information was shared, and the individuals who were in the wrong were punished.

Was there attempted blow back? Of course: you’re dealing with humans and feelings, cliques and factions. Show me any large organization where such does not exist?

My advice to those attempt to affect change? Follow established process and procedures, line up your ducks completely, making the allegation bullet-proof. Then take your stand.

Does it always work that way? Not by a long shot, though it should.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).