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Kiriakou writes: "I give a lot of interviews. That may seem counterintuitive for a former CIA officer who was trained to actively avoid the press and to consider it hostile."

Prison fence. (photo: AP)
Prison fence. (photo: AP)

The Cost of Blowing the Whistle Is High, but Worth It

By John Kiriakou, Reader Supported News

01 March 18


give a lot of interviews. That may seem counterintuitive for a former CIA officer who was trained to actively avoid the press and to consider it hostile. But I believe, strongly, that there are societal wrongs that need to be righted. The only way to do that is through the press. That’s not to say that every press outlet doesn’t have its own agenda. They all do. And every journalist is biased one way or another, whether he admits it or not. Still, when it comes to whistleblowing, there is often nowhere else to go other than to the media.

I’ve written in the past about my friend Tom Drake. Tom was a senior executive at NSA. When he saw the evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality that was the warrantless wiretapping program in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, he did exactly what all of us in the Intelligence Community are taught to do: He reported it up through his chain of command. When he didn’t get any satisfaction there, he went to the Inspector General, where he was told to mind his own business. He then went to the General Counsel, where he was told the same thing. He went to the Defense Department’s Inspector General, where the evidence that he had brought out with him was criminally destroyed. He finally went to the House oversight committee.

For his trouble and patriotism, Tom was charged with nine felonies, including seven counts of espionage. He hadn’t committed espionage, of course, and all of the charges were eventually dropped. But they weren’t dropped until Tom was bankrupt and unemployed. Believe me, that’s a message that was loud and clear for everybody at NSA. Challenge us and we’ll ruin you. Still, when you talk to Tom, he’ll tell you that he has no regrets. It was all for the greater good.

In my own case — exposing the CIA’s torture program — I elected to go directly to the press. I was one of the very few people inside the CIA after 9/11 who opposed the torture program. Remember all the talk about “taking the gloves off” or “getting tough” or wanting to see “flies on bin Laden’s eyes?” None of that came from me. And I couldn’t have gone through my chain of command anyway. It was my chain of command that invented the torture program. They implemented it, they lied about its efficacy, and they destroyed the evidence of it. In the end, they damaged the country, the Constitution, and the rule of law, and they made the world an even more dangerous place. But like Tom Drake, I would do it over again.

There are lots and lots of whistleblowers, though, who do not get media coverage like Snowden, Drake, and I do. And their revelations are at least as important as ours. Most of you know that I have no love whatsoever for prison guards at any level of the military/industrial/prison complex. My own experience has shown me that most of them are uneducated, sadistic control freaks, many with mental illness, who were either flunkies who couldn’t cut it in the military or losers who washed out of small-town police academies. Federal and state prisons, most of which are located deep in the boondocks, were the only places they could find work. Many of them would just as soon watch you die on the floor of your cell than help you with even the most basic human compassion.

Not all of them are like that, though. Lt. Elderick Brass, formerly of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, isn’t like that. Brass faced two-to-ten years in prison for “felony misuse of official information.” His crime? He provided the press with a video of another prison guard shooting a tear gas canister directly into the chest of a prisoner, nearly killing him. Brass had earlier spoken out against the deployment of tear gas in nonviolent situations. When he reported this wrongdoing up his chain of command, he was ignored. So he leaked the video to a reporter. When asked why he did that, Brass said, “It (the tear gas) wasn’t warranted. You clearly see the offenders are not being aggressive. They’re not cursing at staff. They’re not doing any of that. You have right and you have wrong. And this was definitely wrong.”

But Brass took a guilty plea. He had to. It was an economic decision. And you can’t trust a jury that would “convict a baloney sandwich,” as the old saying goes. Brass was sentenced to one year of “pre-trial intervention” and 50 hours of community service. I would argue that he served the community by making his revelation in the first place.

The road ahead is not going to be any easier for any other whistleblower. But things are certainly better than they were when Dan Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers. They’re better than when Frank Serpico was getting shot because of his whistleblowing on police corruption. The process and improvements in it are a slog. The personal cost is high. But it’s worth it. As Lt. Brass said, some things are right or wrong. We have to stand up for what’s right. And to do that, we can’t remain silent.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act - a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration's torture program.

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