I was as shocked as anyone to learn that former FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt is Deep Throat. Deep Throat is the patriarch of whistleblowers–the quintessential anonymous source so under attack these days. What shocked me even more was Felt’s timing: While his advanced age is an obvious reason for revealing himself as the Washington Post‘s source, all other indicators counsel against it. Ours is an Administration obsessed with secrecy and loyalty. It is the most opaque, anti-leak, truth-phobic Administration in decades. The Justice Department, where I used to work, even created an interagency anti-leak task force under Attorney General John Ashcroft to plug the holes. The executive branch’s punishment of whistleblowers is notorious and unmerciful.
My story is not as well-known as that of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who publicized the fact that there was little evidence that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa, and whose wife’s career was destroyed through the White House revelation that she was an undercover CIA operative. Or that of former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who revealed in a book that an invasion and occupation of Iraq had been planned by the Administration before September 11, 2001. Or that of Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief who wrote a book and testified before the 9/11 Commission about George W. Bush’s lackadaisical response in 2001 to repeated warnings of an impending terrorist attack. Nor is my story in the same league as that of former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who told Congress that several hundred thousand troops would be required to conquer and occupy Iraq–an action that ended his career. Or that of Richard Foster, the Medicare system’s chief actuary, who was threatened with dismissal if he revealed to Congress the likely cost of the Administration’s prescription drug plan.
Rather, I am twisting in the wind with lesser-known people, like US Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who was fired for saying her understaffed department had to curtail critical patrols beyond the national Mall because of Interior Department orders requiring more officers to guard downtown national shrines, and FBI translator Sibel Edmonds, who was fired for saying the division was riddled with incompetence and corruption.
In December 2001, as a legal adviser to the Justice Department’s Professional Responsibility Advisory Office, I counseled the criminal division that an FBI interrogation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh without his lawyer’s being present would be unethical. When I was informed three days later that Lindh had been interrogated anyway, I advised that the interview might have to be sealed and used only for national security and intelligence-gathering purposes, not criminal prosecution. Three weeks later, then-Attorney General Ashcroft announced that Justice was filing a criminal complaint against Lindh, and another three weeks after that he announced Lindh’s indictment, saying that his rights “have been carefully, scrupulously honored.”
I knew that wasn’t true.
Around that time, I was given a blistering, untimely, unsigned and unprecedented performance evaluation–despite having received a performance award and a raise during the preceding year–and told either to find another job inside government (my boss gave me leads, which would be ridiculous if I were indeed incompetent) or outside it, otherwise the vitriolic review would be placed in my permanent personnel file. A few weeks later, I happened to learn that the judge in the Lindh case had ordered that all Justice Department correspondence related to Lindh’s interrogation be submitted to the court. I learned about the order only because the prosecutor contacted me directly, stating he had two of my e-mails and wanted to make sure he “had everything.” I knew I’d written more than a dozen. When I went to check the paper file, I found that the e-mails containing my assessment that the FBI had committed an ethical violation were missing.
With the help of technical support, I resurrected the missing e-mails from my computer archives, documented and included them in a memo to my boss and took home a copy in case they “disappeared” again. Then I resigned. Months later, when the Justice Department continued to claim that it had never believed that Lindh had to have a lawyer at his interrogation, I disclosed the e-mails to Newsweek, an action permitted by the Whistleblower Protection Act–believing that Justice would not have the temerity to make public statements contradicted by its own court filings. When wrong things are being done before your eyes, when you’re an unwilling or unwitting participant, when your complaints through internal channels fall on deaf ears and when the agency itself is part of the problem–as in both Felt’s experience and mine (Felt was troubled that President Nixon blatantly interfered with the FBI’s investigation of the Democratic Party headquarters burglary and used the FBI for political purposes; I was bothered by Ashcroft’s willingness to cut legal corners in terrorism prosecutions)–then a free and independent press is a legally recognized way to blow the whistle.
As a result of my doing so, the Justice Department told my new law firm that I was a “criminal” and leaned on them to fire me. I was placed under criminal investigation for sixteen months, for what reason I was never told; the case was closed with no charges ever brought. I was referred to the state bars in which I am licensed as an attorney, based on a secret report to which I did not have access. After more than a year, the Maryland bar dismissed the charges; the DC bar charges are still pending. And if all of this were not enough punishment, I find myself on the “no-fly” list.
This is why I am surprised that Felt “outed” himself. Although his family hails him, correctly, as a “great American hero,” it didn’t take an hour for the opposition machinery to kick into high gear, with Chuck Colson denouncing him for “violating his oath to keep this nation’s secrets” and G. Gordon Liddy saying he “behaved unethically.” What most media outlets neglected to mention is that Colson and Liddy were convicted for their involvement in Nixon’s “dirty tricks.” Whistleblowers are stereotyped as disgruntled employees, troublemakers and snitches. The conscientious employee is often portrayed as vengeful, unstable or out for attention. I have not been completely immune from such accusations, but the terms that have been used to describe me are far more incendiary: “traitor,” “turncoat” and “terrorist sympathizer.”
It should not be a question of whether to blow the whistle but of how loud to blow it, and employees should not have to choose between their conscience and their career. As Seymour Hersh said to me, “There may be no truth, but there will always be history.” I just hope I don’t have to wait thirty years.