Whistle Blowing and Blowing Smoke


John Kiriakou Interview
John Kiriakou Interview (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

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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10 thoughts on “Whistle Blowing and Blowing Smoke

  1. Manning tried to go through his superiors and was told to STFU.

    It’s called “journalism”. When one cannot get anywhere by going through the organization one works for, and sees matters of life and death and right and wrong, then one turns to a journalist.

    That’s what Manning did. And Wikileaks took the Apache helicopter video when “news” organizations like the Washington Post, pimped to the Establishment, held it for a year refusing to release it.

    I’m amazed that anyone considers I, as a taxpayer, am not entitled to journalism (the Fourth Estate described in the Constitution) to see what MY tax dollars are paying for.

    1. Bradley Manning is not a journalist. He is a serviceman in the American military, subject not only to the laws of the United States, but to the military code. Neither authorizes him to decide on his own what classified government documents should be revealed to the public.

      Wikileaks is no more a journalistic enterprise than any other organization or clandestine service the mission of which it is to obtain by unauthorized means for political ends the secrets of other organizations and governments.

      Regardless, journalists are not exempt from the laws of the United States. If a journalist believes he must break the law as an act of conscience, then he should acknowledge that such is what he has done and be prepared to accept the possible consequences while making his case to the public and the courts. He should be prepared for his case not to win the day. Even proclaimed acts of conscience do not exempt an individual, journalist or not, from legal review and the rule of law. If one does not respect and accept the prevailing political organization and legal system and expects to be exempt from review on the basis of inherent righteousness, then one is implicitly acknowledging that the act is a political act and not an attempted exercise in journalism.

      But then I made these arguments in the post above.

  2. Perfectly put. Especially the last sentence. But don’t expect these defenders of the faith to reply.

    See your last sentence.

  3. The question here is : Is whistle blowing an good or bad?

    What i feel:- If it is done is ethically, it is correct. One shoukd follow the proper channel, which is to approach immediate manager, seniors and that is companies head to raise the concerns.
    One should provide some time to the companies, so that can look into the matter and resolve the issues.

    There are people in this society and companies who promote whistle blowing for their own monetary benefits.

  4. Excellent post, Jay. A wonderful example of the stories we tell ourselves.

    Both Moore and Stone occupy a very, very low, shall I dare say nonexistent, place in my column reserved for the trustworthy and the truthful.

    Manning has learned just how far his brand of “whistleblowing” goes. While I cannot condone the treatment he allegedly received (will we ever know the truth of that?), I would have been astonished had his case been dismissed. My hope remains that Assange gets his due.

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