Reprinted from The Intercept
"I'VE BEEN WAITING 40 years for someone like you." Those were the first words Daniel Ellsberg spoke to me when we met last year. Dan and I felt an immediate kinship; we both knew what it meant to risk so much -- and to be irrevocably changed -- by revealing secret truths.
One of the challenges of being a whistleblower is living with the knowledge that people continue to sit, just as you did, at those desks, in that unit, throughout the agency, who see what you saw and comply in silence, without resistance or complaint. They learn to live not just with untruths but with unnecessary untruths, dangerous untruths, corrosive untruths. It is a double tragedy: What begins as a survival strategy ends with the compromise of the human being it sought to preserve and the diminishing of the democracy meant to justify the sacrifice.
But unlike Dan Ellsberg, I didn't have to wait 40 years to witness other citizens breaking that silence with documents. Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971; Chelsea Manning provided the Iraq and Afghan War logs and the Cablegate materials to WikiLeaks in 2010. I came forward in 2013. Now here we are in 2016, and another person of courage and conscience has made available the set of extraordinary documents that are published in The Assassination Complex, the new book out today by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of TheIntercept. (The documents were originally published last October 15 in The Drone Papers.)
We are witnessing a compression of the working period in which bad policy shelters in the shadows, the time frame in which unconstitutional activities can continue before they are exposed by acts of conscience. And this temporal compression has a significance beyond the immediate headlines; it permits the people of this country to learn about critical government actions, not as part of the historical record but in a way that allows direct action through voting -- in other words, in a way that empowers an informed citizenry to defend the democracy that "state secrets" are nominally intended to support. When I see individuals who are able to bring information forward, it gives me hope that we won't always be required to curtail the illegal activities of our government as if it were a constant task, to uproot official lawbreaking as routinely as we mow the grass. (Interestingly enough, that is how some have begun to describe remote killing operations, as "cutting the grass.")
A SINGLE ACT OF whistleblowing doesn't change the reality that there are significant portions of the government that operate below the waterline, beneath the visibility of the public. Those secret activities will continue, despite reforms. But those who perform these actions now have to live with the fear that if they engage in activities contrary to the spirit of society -- if even a single citizen is catalyzed to halt the machinery of that injustice -- they might still be held to account. The thread by which good governance hangs is this equality before the law, for the only fear of the man who turns the gears is that he may find himself upon them.
Hope lies beyond, when we move from extraordinary acts of revelation to a collective culture of accountability within the intelligence community. Here we will have taken a meaningful step toward solving a problem that has existed for as long as our government.
There are authorized leaks and also permitted disclosures. It is rare for senior administration officials to explicitly ask a subordinate to leak a CIA officer's name to retaliate against her husband, as appears to have been the case with Valerie Plame. It is equally rare for a month to go by in which some senior official does not disclose some protected information that is beneficial to the political efforts of the parties but clearly "damaging to national security" under the definitions of our law.
This dynamic can be seen quite clearly in the al Qaeda "conference call of doom" story, in which intelligence officials, likely seeking to inflate the threat of terrorism and deflect criticism of mass surveillance, revealed to a neoconservative website extraordinarily detailed accounts of specific communications they had intercepted, including locations of the participating parties and the precise contents of the discussions. If the officials' claims were to be believed, they irrevocably burned an extraordinary means of learning the precise plans and intentions of terrorist leadership for the sake of a short-lived political advantage in a news cycle. Not a single person seems to have been so much as disciplined as a result of the story that cost us the ability to listen to the alleged al Qaeda hotline.
The answer is control. A leak is acceptable if it's not seen as a threat, as a challenge to the prerogatives of the institution. But if all of the disparate components of the institution -- not just its head but its hands and feet, every part of its body -- must be assumed to have the same power to discuss matters of concern, that is an existential threat to the modern political monopoly of information control, particularly if we're talking about disclosures of serious wrongdoing, fraudulent activity, unlawful activities. If you can't guarantee that you alone can exploit the flow of controlled information, then the aggregation of all the world's unmentionables -- including your own -- begins to look more like a liability than an asset.
At the other end of the spectrum is Manning, a junior enlisted soldier, who was much nearer to the bottom of the hierarchy. I was midway in the professional career path. I sat down at the table with the chief information officer of the CIA, and I was briefing him and his chief technology officer when they were publicly making statements like "We try to collect everything and hang on to it forever," and everybody still thought that was a cute business slogan. Meanwhile I was designing the systems they would use to do precisely that. I wasn't briefing the policy side, the secretary of defense, but I was briefing the operations side, the National Security Agency's director of technology. Official wrongdoing can catalyze all levels of insiders to reveal information, even at great risk to themselves, so long as they can be convinced that it is necessary to do so.
Reaching those individuals, helping them realize that their first allegiance as a public servant is to the public rather than to the government, is the challenge. That's a significant shift in cultural thinking for a government worker today.
I've argued that whistleblowers are elected by circumstance. It's not a virtue of who you are or your background. It's a question of what you are exposed to, what you witness. At that point the question becomes Do you honestly believe that you have the capability to remediate the problem, to influence policy? I would not encourage individuals to reveal information, even about wrongdoing, if they do not believe they can be effective in doing so, because the right moment can be as rare as the will to act.
THIS IS SIMPLY a pragmatic, strategic consideration. Whistleblowers are outliers of probability, and if they are to be effective as a political force, it's critical that they maximize the amount of public good produced from scarce seed. When I was making my decision, I came to understand how one strategic consideration, such as waiting until the month before a domestic election, could become overwhelmed by another, such as the moral imperative to provide an opportunity to arrest a global trend that had already gone too far. I was focused on what I saw and on my sense of overwhelming disenfranchisement that the government, in which I had believed for my entire life, was engaged in such an extraordinary act of deception.