The Political Animal

Whistle Blowing and Blowing Smoke


John Kiriakou Interview
John Kiriakou Interview (Photo credit:

On Sunday, Scott Shane published an article in The New York Times about the prosecution of ex-CIA operative John C. Kiriakou for having revealed to a reporter the name of another, active and covert CIA agent. The back story is complex. I encourage you to read about it. Like many others, I think the context of the crime for which Kiriakou has been convicted – essentially, loose lips – not to warrant the severity of his sentence or the damaging effects, already, on his life. That is not my subject here.

Many supporters believe that Kiriakou has been prosecuted – really, persecuted – because he was the first CIA insider to speak publically about waterboarding, back in 2007. However, despite that charge, that is not what he has been convicted of – rather, the revelation of the covert agent’s name to a reporter. Nonetheless, supporters claim the prosecution is really about the waterboarding revelations, which were, second hand, mostly inaccurate, and regularly refer to and ennoble Kiriakou as a “whistle blower.”

Whistle blowing, properly understood, is not ratting, but an act of conscience. When committed in violation of the law, it is a form of civil disobedience. There is a long tradition of thinkers and actors far greater than anyone defending Kiriakou, going all the way back to Socrates, who have argued – and acted out their argument – that civil disobedience is committed in violation of a law, but out of respect for the rule of law, and thus entails a willingness to accept the punishment for one’s disobedience. Ideally, a self-conscious and ultimately just social and legal order will recognize the injustice – if such it was – giving rise to the disobedience, and mitigate the punishment.

The specific act for which Kiriakou has bees convicted even he claims to have been inadvertent and careless, no act of conscience. About the earlier waterboarding of which Kiriakou spoke publically,

He said he had been offered the chance to be trained in the harsh interrogation methods but turned it down. Even though he had concluded that waterboarding was indeed torture, he felt that the C.I.A.’s critics, inflamed by the new revelation that videotapes of the interrogations had been destroyed, were being unduly harsh in judging actions taken in the hectic months after Sept. 11 when more attacks seemed imminent.

“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he said in our first conversation. “2002 was a different world than 2007. What I think is fair is having a national debate over whether we should be waterboarding.”

His feelings about waterboarding were so mixed that some 2007 news reports cast him as a critic of C.I.A. torture, while others portrayed him as a defender of the agency. Some human rights activists even suspected — wrongly, as it turned out — that the intelligence agency was orchestrating his public comments.

Kiriakou is a surprisingly loquacious fellow for an ex covert operative, but we see here that he makes no claim to have been blowing the whistle on government crimes of torture, however much the, then, Bush administration, not the current Obama administration,  may have been displeased by his public talk. Still, at the website of Friends of John Kiriakou, it is argued that

this is a case that should never have been brought anywhere – let alone in a country that values free speech and the protections of the First Amendment.

Of course, the free speech protections of the first amendment do not apply to revealing to reporters the classified names of covert CIA agents.

At Fire Dog Lake‘s Dissenter blog, Kevin Gosztola, a fervid supporter of “whistle blower” Bradley Manning, offers the same whistle blower defense of Kiriakou.

At Michael Moore’s website, Peter Van Buren states,

no one except John Kiriakou is being held accountable for America’s torture policy. And John Kiriakou didn’t torture anyone, he just blew the whistle on it.

Interestingly, it could be anyone, but not John Kiriakou who would call John Kiriakou a whistle blower. The ingenuous and impressively still patriotic Kiriakou, as we have read, does not claim to have blown the whistle on anything. Still, Oliver Stone supports him.

In their perpetual posture of smug dissent, these recorders of the whistle blow transcribe it as a free concert of their own inner music. One’s own inner conscience, to which one may rightly choose to be true, bears no responsibility to others. If one, as the sole decoder of the just and unjust law, rightful and wrongful acts, chooses to act in violation of the law, one is entitled to get off scot-free. One not only violates the law as an act of conscience, but one’s act of conscience by its inherent righteousness invalidates the entire system of a law by which one might rightfully be judged and held to account for one’s noble transgression.

Pretty neat, that: righteousness without risk, noblesse with no oblige, sacrifice without… sacrifice.

How, then, might we distinguish whistle blowing from ratting, an act of conscience from mere criminality, civil disobedience from treason? Don’t ask these defenders of the faith. They don’t know what they’re talking about.



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