The Real News Network – Feb 2, 2013
Hassan Ghani: An award for integrity and honesty, for work that essentially prevented a war. Thomas Fingar, now a Professor at Stanford University, oversaw the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in 2007, during a period when the Bush administration was beating the drums of war. Its conclusion, that all 16 US intelligence agencies judged with high confidence that Iran had given up its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, placed an insurmountable obstacle on the path to conflict.
Critics of the report’s conclusions say it was politicised. But speaking to us in Oxford, where he’s currently teaching as part of an overseas programme, Thomas Fingar told us that unlike the flawed WMD report on Iraq in 2002, his assessment has withstood scrutiny over the years.
Professor Thomas Fingar, Chairman of National Intelligence Council (2005-2008): “The assessment of our estimate has been reviewed many times. Many times before we issued it, many times in the years since, in the years since with additional information. Judging by the public statements, the annual threat testimony and the other statements of the administration, which must be consistent with the classified report, they haven’t changed it. It stood up as good analytic tradecraft. There are people who characterise it as if it was written in order to prevent war – that’s not why it was written, it was written to describe the situation as best we understood it.
Hassan Ghani: When asked what went wrong in 2002, Fingar says those authoring the NIE on Iraq caved in to pressure to produce a rushed report.
Professor Thomas Fingar, Chairman of National Intelligence Council (2005-2008): “They produced an estimate in 17 days. That was the congressionally imposed deadline agreed to by George Tenet. So they produced something in 17 days, which had two weekends in there. It’s a classic case of you want something real bad, you get something real bad. Stuff pulled off the shelf not really re-evaluated, no ability to go back and really tear into this stuff. And we were not going to make that mistake again with the Iran estimate. So we took the heat and said ‘you don’t get it until we’re ready’.”
Hassan Ghani: But he that ultimately politicians can choose to ignore the intelligence agencies, if they don’t get the results they want.
Professor Thomas Fingar, Chairman of National Intelligence Council (2005-2008): “The decision to go to war had clearly been made before that estimate was undertaken. Troops were moving, you could not have been in Washington and not known there was going to be war. For I&R we said there’s not evidence of a reconstituted nuclear programme – that was the only one that really mattered – and we said no, evidence isn’t there, the evidences can all be explained in other ways. That’s the third sentence of the estimate. So if you cared about this enough to read to the third sentence, you’d know that there was a dissent on the major justification for the conflict.”
Hassan Ghani: The Sam Adams associates present their award each year for integrity in intelligence. Many previous awardees have been intelligence professionals and whistleblowers.
2010 Sam Adams awardee, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, was piped into the ceremony by video link. He used the opportunity to tackle an upcoming Hollywood movie, which he says is an attack on Wikileaks, and renews the push for war with Iran.
Julian Assange, Wikileaks: “We have something here, which is a recent acquisition of Wikileaks. The script to a tens of millions of dollar budget Dreamworks movie. What is it about? It is about us, nominally. It is about Wikileaks the organisation. It is a mass propaganda attack against Wikileaks the organisation and the character of my staff and our activities and so on. But it is not just an attack against us, it fans the flames to start a war with Iran. It’s coming out in November, it’s being filmed now. So that’s the reality of where we’re at. Not merely a war of intelligence agencies, but a war of corrupt media, corrupt culture.”
Hassan Ghani: Sam Adams himself was a CIA analyst in the Vietnam-era, tasked with estimating enemy strength in numbers. His conclusion that the Viet-cong numbered at least half a million, twice the official figure, was swept under the rug at the time, seen as politically unacceptable. He later did go public, but too late to have an impact on the war.
Raymond McGovern, Former CIA Analyst: “He went to an early death at age 55, with great remorse that he had not gone outside the system, that he had not said what he knew back in 1967, half way through the war. The way he explained it to me is, that Vietnam memorial, made of granite in a V, that whole left section wouldn’t be there, because there would be no names to carve into that granite. If he had spoken out, if I had spoken out, if we had spoken around 1967, when we had that cable from General Abrahams saying ‘we can’t go with the honest figures, because we’ve been projecting a view of progress’.”
Hassan Ghani: And so just as interesting as this year’s award winner, are those presenting it to him. Former US Army Colonel Ann Wright resigned as a State department official in protest over the Iraq War. She argues that too many within government are carried along with political tides, often at the expense of what’s best for the nation.
Ann Wright, Former US State Dep. Official: “There were so many people, that were a part of the decision to go ahead and invade and occupy Iraq, that knew better. That knew that the rationale for it was wrong, but they went along with the senior leadership of our country, who for whatever reason it was, whether it was for oil or for whatever it was, wanted to take out the Saddam Hussein regime.”
Hassan Ghani: Like other Sam Adams associates, she sees whistleblowers as an essential check to keep the system in balance.
Ann Wright, Former US State Dep. Official: “So many whistleblowers find that the system doesn’t want to hear what they have to say. Because usually it’s something that the government system is doing wrong and whistleblowers are saying ‘wait wait, this is going wrong’ or ‘maybe there’s even criminal acts that are happening that the government’s involved in and we’ve got to stop that and change it’. And we find that many times the government and senior officials in the government don’t want to hear that.”
Hassan Ghani: Previous Sam Adams award winner, Coleen Rowley, blew the whistle after 9/11 on major intelligence sharing failures within the FBI in the run up to the attacks. Her 9/11 commission testimony helped re-organise the agency and the way information is shared.
Coleen Rowley, Former FBI Agent, Whistleblower: “They realised that 9/11 occurred because the agencies blocked information from each other, they blocked it vertically, horizontally, and they blocked it from the public. So the people who are in those environments, when information is blocked and there is lack of sharing, what is their choice? They almost have to either become a whistleblower or then live forever with the consequences of knowing that they could have done something. That’s why Wikileaks, or a method of sharing information, and of course I talked about sharing information between agencies, but it’s also with the public. The 9/11 commission said if the information even had been shared of Moussawi’s arrest, that would have probably prevented 9/11. So it’s an incredible situation, most people think that secrecy is protecting them, and it’s the exact opposite.”
Hassan Ghani: Rowley believes much more information should be made public, whether or not it’s politically embarrassing.
Coleen Rowley, Former FBI Agent, Whistleblower: “We’ve had some good inspector general investigations, for instance of torture in the CIA, to this day though it remains secret. And you see the opposite is Abu Ghraib, that report was made public, and so at least the public learned about it, and there was at the time an outcry about the fact that it was discovered that abuses were occurring in Abu Ghraib. But the CIA torture report, I think it’s probably a good investigation, but the public still doesn’t know, and so what’s happened? There’s a movie out there that’s using a false narrative – the public doesn’t know that it’s false, because how would they know? Because they’ve never seen the truth. It’s a pretty incredible situation, the truth really matters.”
Hassan Ghani: The US government says it’s necessary to prosecute whistleblowers to protect national security. And for whistleblowers who do choose to go public, the consequences are increasingly dangerous.
Coleen Rowley, Former FBI Agent, Whistleblower: “Especially under Obama, there have been prosecutions, I think it’s 7 now, twice as many as all Presidents of all time, under the official espionage act. If you go back to deepthroat, and the FBI who knew that the highest level of President’s men were actually engaging wrongdoing – would that repeat today? I really wonder, especially now with the surveillance and the monitoring.”
Hassan Ghani: Thomas Drake is the only whistleblower so far who’s managed to fight espionage charges under Obama and win – there are six other cases. A former senior executive at the NSA, he blew the whistle to the media on a failed billion dollar surveillance programme which he believed violated the constitution.
Thomas Drake, Former NSA Executive, Whistleblower: “I would I eyewitness to massive fraud, waste and abuse on a multi-billion dollar program, a boondoggle programme called trailblazer, when there was actually a superior alternative, and was also a program that would have completely honoured the fourth amendment and the exclusive statute by which the US government, NSA, was authorised to violate the fourth amendment rights fo Americans. That was under FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They wilfully broke the law, criminally. But what happened later, as all of this came out and I ended up going to a reporter, decriminalised the reporting of the government wrong doing. They criminalized the reporting of government criminal conduct.”
Hassan Ghani: Drake says he was careful not to reveal any classified information, and after reviewing laws on disclosure, thought that the worst that could happen is that he would lose his job. Instead, he faced espionage charges amounting to 35 years in prison.
Thomas Drake, Former NSA Executive, Whistleblower: “I was turned into enemy of the state, I mean I’m charged with the espionage act, I’m being put into the same category as historical spies in US history, the Alder Hiss’, the Robert Hanssens, the Alrdich Ames of the world. That the category of people you become associated with. So it’s probably one of the worst things an american can be charged with, under the espionage act, because you are painted into a very dark corner, you have betrayed your country. I was put under investigation by the bush administration, but the Bush administration never actually indicted me, it took the Obama administration to actually indictment me. And when they indicted me, they threw everything they had at me.
In 2008, his presidential campaign, he actually lauded whistleblowers, he called them out as patriots. Who better to call the government onto the carpet when they’re up to no good. And yet he’s presided over the most draconian crackdown on truth tellers and whistleblowers of any administration, actually all administrations combined. It truly is unprecedented.
Hassan Ghani: Despite immense pressure to plead out, Drake maintained his innocence, and on the eve of trial government prosecutors dropped the charges. But Thomas Drake has been left blacklisted, financially bankrupt, and disturbed at the path his country is following.
Thomas Drake, Former NSA Executive, Whistleblower: “I’m having great difficulty recognising my own country, in terms of the government, the form of government under which I took an oath to support and defend four times in my government career. Any yet I was criminalized, and was painted as an enemy of the state, for simply speaking truth to power, and it was clear they were going to make me an object lesson, and they threw everything they had at me.
Hassan Ghani: Of course, it’s not just US administrations that face accusations of covering up fraud and criminal acts under the guise of national security. Annie Machon was an agent in the British spy agency MI5. She claims Britain is ahead of the US in terms of stifling whistleblowers from within the intelligence community.
Annie Machon, Former MI5 Agent, Whistleblower: “They a rethink about the official secrets act and launched a new in 1989, the 1989 official secrets act, which obviated, got rid of, the public interest defence. And the only reason that clause was put in was to stifle whistleblowing. There’s already that old law to stop treachery, so this is designed to stifle whistleblowers. And it has been used many times in the UK since, against David Shayler, Richard Tomlinson, Katherine Gun, and it has a very chilling effect on the idea that if you see crimes committed by the spy agencies, what do you do with that information? The only person that you can go to legally under the OSA of 1989 is the head of the agency you wish to make a complaint against. So you can imagine how many of those complaints are upheld.
And I think it’s particularly pertinent at the moment, certainly in the last 10 years, where we’ve seen false information fed into the political process, where we’ve seen politicisation of intelligence in the run up to the Iraq war, with the Downing Street memo and the head of MI6 saying the intelligence facts had to be fitted around the policy. And also where we see torture and extraordinary rendition, where our British spies are being used to do that and they are protected under a lot of secrecy laws, and the government in fact wants to make greater protection for them by setting up secret courts, where the accused can’t even see what they’re accused of. It’s Kafkaesque.”
Hassan Ghani: Allegations against British intelligence services of complicity in torture do still make it through to the media when the alleged victims speak out. But with tight laws around disclosure in the UK, it’s impossible to say whether or not what we hear is just a fraction of what’s taking place.
Annie Machon, Former MI5 Agent, Whistleblower: “I worked in MI5 in the mid-1990s for six years. That I would say would be the only marginally ethical decade of its hundred year existence, because up until 1989 it did not officially exist – it could do whatever it wanted – and post 9/11 the gloves came off with the intelligence agencies. So in the 1990s peace was breaking out, they didn’t get involved in torture, they stopped looking at political activists, the whole shebang. So that was actually the more ethical era, and yet in those six years David Shayler and I saw so much going wrong that we felt compelled to blow the whistle. So how much worse is it now? That has to be the question. I think all we’re seeing now with extradition and torture cases is definitely very much the tip of the iceberg.
Hassan Ghani: It’s clear that the act of whistleblowing, even in the public interest, is under serious threat. Some may consider this a positive development in terms of national security. Others see it as the end of public accountability for those in positions of power.
Thomas Drake, Former NSA Executive, Whistleblower: “If the government begins to exercise increasing influence, even if it’s self-censorship where people will not speak up because they’re afraid that they’re going to be noticed by the government, that means that critical information about government activities will never see the light of day. And especially the secret side of government, you would think that’s the part of government you want the most accountability with. Well, if they’re choking off the sources and they’re making it very clear, even though I was able to prevail and hold off the government and remained a free man, the message was still sent.”