Ex-CIA agent’s conviction reminds us that whistle-blowing remains thankless and perilous, despite assurances of protection

So Jeffrey Sterling, a former U.S. intelligence officer, has finally been found guilty of espionage for leaking details of “what may have been one of the most reckless operations in the modern history of the CIA,” as James Risen, the journalist Sterling was convicted of informing, put it.

The news media wasted little time lamenting Sterling’s Jan. 26 conviction, since their main concern had been with whether Risen, a national security reporter for The New York Times, would be jailed for refusing to say whether Sterling was his source.

After hounding Risen for seven years, the Justice Department had backed off its demand that he inform on his alleged informant, and prosecutors got their conviction anyway. That’s fairly outrageous in itself, since the department’s guidelines had long stipulated that reporters shouldn’t be muscled unless, among other things, there’s no other way to get the evidence prosecutors need, which plainly wasn’t true here.

A pointless verdict to avenge a stale embarrassment —a conviction in 2015 stemming from a 2006 book about a foolish operation that blew up in the CIA’s face in 2000. The spymasters, Risen recounted in State of War, had infiltrated a recipe for nuclear weaponry into Iran that was so transparently flawed that it was immediately detected and which still may have ended up advancing Iran’s nuclear program.

By 2006, when Risen’s book came out, the secrets had long ago ceased to be secret from the people they were supposed to be secret from.

It should be obvious that if Sterling’s leaks had told of unsung heroism and brilliance within the agency, there’d have been no prosecution, even if the information had been no less secret. But he committed the mortal sin of humiliating his bosses, and for that he’ll pay.

Still, the idea that whistle-blowers don’t really have to go public to expose government stupidity is a recurring element in the criticisms leveled at Jeffrey Sterling and other well-placed leakers, such as Chelsea Manning, the Wikileaks uber-source, and Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) operative now a fugitive in, of all places, Russia.

President Obama in 2013 noted that he had approved whistle-blower protection for national security workers. That’s why Snowden had no reason to go to the media with his explosive information about NSA domestic surveillance. “So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions,” the president said.

The idea that whistle-blowers are protected is often voiced, and may sometimes even be true.

But a chilling story that Risen tells in his 2014 book, Pay Any Price, gives a depressingly different account about how warmly whistle-blowers are welcomed inside the Beltway.

Diane Roark was a career civil servant and had spent 16 years on the staff of the House Select Committee on Intelligence when, after 9/11, she was approached by a disaffected senior-level technical manager for the NSA. He told her the agency had apparently launched a domestic, warrantless wiretapping program that, she realized, was illegal and unconstitutional.

The details of the program—which was eventually exposed in December 2005 by Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau—matter less than the lengths Roark went through to alert authorities to what she initially thought had to be “a rogue operation.”

It’s an infuriating chronicle that unfolded over nearly five years. Roark started by approaching her bosses, the senior Intelligence Committee staffers from both parties. She was instructed to keep quiet. She went to the committee’s general counsel; he did nothing. She arranged a meeting between her NSA source and a leading Republican member of the committee. Again, nothing.

Roark then sought out an ex-NSA executive who was on good terms with agency brass, and he said he’d approach NSA officials. She tried to meet with the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court—the nominally independent judicial panel that oversees wiretap requests in sensitive cases. The judge, instead of responding, apparently blew the whistle on her and notified the Justice Department.

Roark took further steps—including trying to get a personal letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist—without success, and in a scenario familiar to fans of paranoiac spy fiction, she became aware that many of the people she was approaching already knew and didn’t care. According to Risen, she got as far as Porter Goss, the intelligence committee chair—and later CIA chief—and Michael Hayden, the NSA director, and she was admonished not to talk to anybody in Congress.

By 2003 Roark had retired, given up, and moved back to her home in Oregon. In a final postscript, in 2007 she was finally interviewed by FBI agents—who wanted to know not who was behind the warrantless surveillance program, but who had revealed it to Risen and Lichtblau for their 2005 Times expose.

And on July 26, 2007 the FBI raided her home. At least they had a warrant.

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