Monday, December 17, 2012

A Tale of Two Spies

The Shafeek Nader Trust honored two whistleblowers at a ceremony on November 12. The ceremony was chaired by Laura Nader while her brother Ralph watched silently from the edge of the audience. They chose to honor William Binney, formerly of the National Security Administration (NSA) and John Kiriakou, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Both of these men were portrayed as whistle-blowers who became targets of Obama's justice department.

The Trust used this awards ceremony as a stage to press for the impeachment of President Obama. They invited an ultra-conservative lawyer, Bruce Fein, to make their case. Fein has called for the impeachment of the last three presidents and made his reputation by participating in the impeachment of Richard Nixon. 

Conservatives have abused every part of the Constitution to keep themselves in power. Impeachment should be a last resort, as in the case of Nixon. In the case of Clinton, impeachment was a means to prevent the duly elected president from fulfilling his promises. Conservatives are now trying to destroy Obama's second term. No one who believes in democracy should support this movement.

The Trust chose to honor William Binney and John Kiriakou at one ceremony. One of them is a whistleblower; the other is a self-promoter. Both worked for intelligence agencies, Binney for the NSA and Kiriakou for the CIA. There the similarities end.

Binney worked as a codebreaker for the army and then the NSA for 40 years. He kept on doing the job because, as he says, it was fun. Binney is a tall, nerdy man with a pleasant voice and a wry sense of humor. He addressed the audience too briefly to display his humor fully. He was honored, among other things, for the 2007 New York Times video in which he described “Stellar Wind”, a top secret computer program of the National Security NSA. The NSA has been using this program to collect information on all Americans and then storing this information in a huge repository in Bluffdale, Utah. Binney, who clearly is knowledgeable on this subject, calculates that the Utah facility has the capacity to store 100 years of the entire world's electronic communication.

Binney worked for years as a code breaker and electronic espionage expert at the NSA. In 2001, the NSA proposed a new project that would cost billions of dollars. Binney coded a much more modest program that could be implemented for a fraction of the price. Binney called this program ThinThread and used it to sift through the electronic records coming in from overseas. Soon he noticed that his contractors were drifting away and computers were being requisitioned for another project. This project was Stellar Wind. His contractors told Binney they were eavesdropping on the communications of American citizens. Binney decided this was wrong so he informed the Congressional oversight committees. Since then, he has been testifying regularly.

In 2007, Binney agreed to appear in a 7-minute video for the New York Times. In the video, he spoke freely about Stellar Wind. He related an amusing incident when his home was raided by the FBI. He was in the shower and an FBI agent interrupted him while pointing a gun at his head. The FBI wanted to know if he had knowledge of any crimes. He said he did, and sat down with them (after first getting dressed) to explain the crime committed by Bush, Cheney, General Haynes (head of NSA) when they started using Stellar Wind to spy on the American people.

“I presented them with a problem,” he said. “Because these FBI agents did not have security clearance.” The problem for the government was that Binney did give up top secret information, but he did so at the point of a gun. Binney knew that the senior officer on the raid did have clearance, but could say nothing to the others. Binney reminded that officer that the Nuremberg defense would not work, that the officer could not claim that he was just following orders. To this date, Binney has not been charged with any crime. He believes the NSA needs better oversight: procedures that regulate collection of electronic data or selection of drone assassination targets need to be publicized, not executed in secret. The congress needs to act to define and limit the powers of the president in these areas.

Binney is the prototype of a whistleblower. He resigned his position with the NSA and began testifying before every committee of congress that invited him. He has told everyone who listens that he believes the actions of the NSA are unconstitutional and illegal. The second honoree at the evening's ceremony did not act from similar honorable motives.

John Kiriakou, formerly of the CIA. Kiriakou worked for the CIA for 14 years, beginning in 1990. The CIA had been directing various covert wars in Central America and the Caribbean at that time. Its proxies were widely believed to be involved in illegal activities, including dealing drugs, killing prisoners, and torture. None of these activities deterred Kiriakou from joining the CIA.

After 9/11, Kiriakou and the CIA became involved in covert activities in Afghanistan. Kiriakou says that he had the opportunity to learn how to torture prisoners using waterboarding but that he refused to take the course. Again, he was not bothered by the CIA's sanction of illegal activities. Kiriakou evidently read top secret agency reports, since he later reported that Abu Zubaida was waterboarded.

Kiriakou quit the CIA in 2004. He did not appear to have moral or legal issues with the agency. His motive was, evidently, to further his career. He immediately went to work in a series of private industry jobs related to his expertise in gathering intelligence.

Kiriakou gave an interview to ABC News in 2007 in which he claimed that waterboarding was effective in extracting data from Abu Zubaydah. After his ABC interview revealed Kiriakou as a whistle-blower, the former CIA agent gave interviews for other media organizations repeating his position that waterboarding was effective and necessary.

In 2009 the Obama administration ordered four secret memos released to the press. These memos disclosed to the first time that Abu Zubaydah had been waterboarded not once but 83 times, and that he stopped giving valuable information after his captors started mistreating him. In his 2009 book, Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror, Kiriakou admitted that he had not been present at Abu Zubaydah's interrogation but instead relied had on internal CIA cables for his information.

In 2012 the Justice Department brought charges against Kiriakou for four violations of US official secrecy law, primarily based on email communications with the co-author of his book. The Attorney General had failed in its attempt to prosecute

In a question and answer period after his statement for the award ceremony, Kiriakou was asked why he was being prosecuted at this time. He avoided answering the question, but the answer is obvious from the charges against him. Three of the charges relate to revealing the name of a covert operative. In 2008, Kiriakou revealed to two journalists the name and telephone number of a covert CIA officer who had directed the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. The evidence for this was an email correspondence between Kiriakou and the journalists. Kiriakou's defense was that the journalist already knew the covert officer's name from another source. The evidence in the emails included in the court record did not support this.

The fourth charge against Kiriakou was that he lied to the Publications Review Board about the book he published in 2009. In the book, Kiriakou gave detailed descriptions of waterboarding, which at the time was a classified procedure. He told the Review Board, however, that this was a fictionalized account. He confided to his co-author in emails that the board would not probably not bother to check his story and that maybe they could get some classified material into the book. Kiriakou walked into a trap there. The most common charge used by the government against defendants is lying to a federal agent, a felony. The lying generally occurs during an investigatory interview, so defendants frequently avoid such interviews. Kiriakou could not avoid the interview because he had written a book. He should have taken care to tell the truth at the interview, but instead chose to deceive the FBI about the contents of his book. His hubris betrayed him.

The true whistle-blower acts selflessly. His moral sense is offended by the actions of his organization. He code of honor leaves him choice but to reveal company or government secrets to the public. William Binney expressed this by saying that he knew that spying on American citizens was wrong and he could take no part in it. But he never exposed individual operatives to danger, nor did he give details of his project away that would have permitted enemies to counteract them or use his inventions against the United States. His actions did not break any laws and he has never been charged with a crime.

Kiriakou, by contrast, did not take a personal risk by telling what he knew about waterboarding in the CIA. At the time he spoke, Kiriakou had already been out of the CIA for five years, so he did not fear dismissal. He did not oppose waterboarding on moral grounds. He argued that waterboarding was effective and almost painless, since it only took 30 seconds to elicit a confession from the most hardened Qaida soldier. Kiriakou revealed this information at least in part because he was contemplating writing a book about his experience and he needed to raise his public profile to sell the book.

Barack Obama became president in 2009. One of his first acts as president was to release four classified documents that described waterboarding by the CIA, as well as two Justice Department documents that were written at the request of the Bush administration to provide a legal opinion that waterboarding was legal, despite historical evidence that it had always been torture and therefore banned by the Geneva protocols. When Obama released these documents, Kiriakou could no longer be prosecuted for divulging classified material.

After Kiriakou disingenuously prayed that Obama might commute his sentence, Bruce Fein gave a speech calling for the impeachment of Barack Obama. Fein was a member of the team that brought impeachment charges against Richard Nixon. After serving as an assistant Attorney General in the Reagan administration, Fein also called for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and George Bush. His charges coincided with the charges that Ralph Nader has made against Obama, that Obama has unconstitutionally waged war against Libya and killed US citizens without a trial using drones.

Bruce Fein spoke for about five minutes giving as fine a jury summation as you will ever hear. Following his speech, Laura Nader, the chairwoman, called for those in attendance to sign a petition calling for President Obama to pardon Kiriakou. This petition made no sense. Kiriakou was caught by the justice department while making a series of blunders, not because he was exposing wrongdoing by the CIA but because he was marketing himself as a security consultant. The Justice department was doing its job by protecting CIA agents from having their identities compromised. The chances that President Obama would help Kiriakou were almost nil.

Jesselyn Radack from The Government Accountability Project (GAP) sat beside Kiriakou during the awards ceremony. Radack had already written a couple of articles, one on the Daily Kos and another in Salon, in which she declared her support for Kiriakou and denounced the Obama administration. The Obama administration deserves some criticism in other cases, but its behavior in this case seems appropriate. Kiriakou was a whistle-blower who acted in his own interest. Radack would have us ignore the facts of the matter (she never mentions that he publicly approved waterboarding) and also ignore the fact that Obama acted almost immediately upon his election to ban waterboarding and released previously classified documents that showed the extent of the problem.

Radack claims that the Obama administration is waging war against reporters. Not a single reporter was arrested or charged. The government charged insiders who revealed classified material to the press. The issue of protecting classified information should be entirely separate from the issue of whistle-blowing. Binney was a whistle-blower. He testified before congressional oversight committees. When they ignored him, he spoke to the press. He never revealed the identity of any NSA and he never revealed details of the classified projects he was working on. Binney wanted the leaders in the Bush administration to take the blame for breaking the law, not the low-level programmers who carried out the orders of others.

According to the indictment, Kiriakou specifically named a low-level CIA operative to three reporters. The information he gave them was forwarded to attorneys for inmates in Guantanamo, along with pictures, which were found by the jailers at Guantanamo. Kiriakou therefore endangered the life of a CIA operative, the crime with which he was charged and the one to which he pleaded guilty.

The awards ceremony had elements of a trial. The defendant, Kiriakou, could not testify fully because he had already signed an agreement with the court not to claim innocence of the crime to which he was pleading guilty. So he said he believed in his heart that he was innocent, then refused to proceed any further because, he claimed, he might have said too much already. Kiriakou pretended that he had no idea why the government had decided to prosecute him 5 years after he had given the interview to ABC. He knew very well that he was not being prosecuted for leaking information about torture. That was not one of the charges against him. The government was charging him with crimes committed after that interview and unrelated to it.

Radack took the part of his attorney in this drama. She said the only reason he was pleading guilty was so that he could be with his children while they were growing up. If Kiriakou had said that, he would have violated his plea bargain, but the substance of the plea bargain was not revealed to the audience. Just as in a criminal trial, the quasi lawyer, Radack, withheld information that made her quasi client, Kiriakou, look bad.

Radack was not Kiriakou's lawyer during his trial. She pleaded his case in the press, always arguing in ways calculated to minimize his guilt. Kiriakou pled guilty to only one count, that he lied to the FBI in an effort to get classified material into his book. Radack argued that the classified material was not published. She concealed the actual indictment from her readers. The crime he pled guilty to was lying to a federal investigator, not making classified material public.

The groups involved in this awards ceremony, the Shafeek Nader Trust and the Government Accountability Project, as well as the individuals who assisted them in this enterprise, Jesselyn Radack and Bruce Fein, should have chosen a better subject for their efforts. Everyone who leaks information is not a whistle-blower. Kiriakou leaked some information (the habitual use of waterboarding) while maintaining falsely that waterboarding was effective. Binney and Thomas Drake are principled men who speak the truth at great personal risk. Drake has lost his job and pension. Radack also made a difficult decision to publicly expose the lies of the Bush Justice Department. True whistle-blowers deserve our support. Self-promoters do not.

Other progressives have called for Obama's impeachment. Ralph Nader has accused Obama of committing war crimes that amounted to impeachable offenses. Glenn Greenwald believes that Obama could be impeached over the invasion of Libya. These people want to destroy the progressive agenda by attacking Obama on constitutional grounds. We are at war now, a war between the one per cent and the ninety-nine percent. This is an all-out, no holds barred battle. Progressives need to decide which side they support and not play intellectual games as if they are lecturing on a college campus.

Sources (partial list)

Brian Ross interview with John Kiriakou, Oct 12 2007, ABC News,

Scott Shane, Waterboarding used 266 times on two suspects, New York Times,,(Shane was one of the two journalists referred to in the Kiriakou indictment).

Jessylen Radack, The Truth about the Espionnage Act Prosecution of John Kiriakou, Government Accountability Project,