Tony Shaffer’s best-selling Operation Dark Heart is a three-fer for whistleblowers. It is a page turning war story that the Army Timesdubbed “big screen material.” It illustrates how a holistic intelligence and battle strategy can make the difference between victory and defeat, explaining why we are still in Afghanistan today when we were clobbering the Taliban in 2003: namely that a Pentagon politico-bureaucratic complex canceled what was working. Second, its highly censored, blacked-out text illustrates the caricature that national security agencies have made of classified information. Finally, it is a slam dunk case study illustrating why the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) is essential to protect our country’s security, and the patriots who defend it, from our own government.
First, the adventure. Shaffer joined Army counterintelligence in the late 1980s when he was 18. By 1991 he was running the Army’s clandestine HUMINT counter-intelligence program. He was part of a program called Able Danger that uncovered the operation of 9/11 lead hijacker Mohamed Atta a year before the tragedy. Again the politico-bureaucratic complex blocked Shaffer from following through. More on that later.
Disillusioned, Shaffer volunteered for deployment to Iraq, arriving in July 2003 for what became a seven-month initial tour. It certainly was not all glory, as illustrated by the book’s opening sentence: “It’s damned hard to sleep with your head propped up on the butt end of an M-4.” Especially when you’re standing up in an open-air Chinook helicopter thumping through the Afghanistan mountains in sub-freezing weather! He arrived in Bagram, Afghanistan, to operate out of a surreal world of football field-sized tent cities.
But Shaffer also was in an environment where focused, committed professionals survived by earning each other’s trust. He and a series of partners did it all, with remarkable success – infiltrating and downloading massive computer files during a daytime raid of the telephone company; breaking down a suspect through prolonged but humane interrogation to learn that Iran was financing Afghani operations; establishing a network of community relationships to get advance warnings of Taliban movements and plans; and repeatedly ambushing and routing Taliban attacks on Afghani villages. He led efforts in the field to implement the same principle the 9/11 Commission recommended among government agencies at home: a free flow of information between compartmentalized intelligence operations that hoarded information and acted independently, often at cross purposes.
He diagnosed nine years ago that Pakistan’s intelligence service was the enemy’s closet partner, and mapped out strategies to ambush and wipe out Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistani safe havens like last year with Osama bin Laden, again a decade ahead of his time. But success and lessons learned in the field were water off the backs of policy makers who flatly rejected strategies that were working. Instead they shifted course to work as a team with Pakistan in a “pincer’s movement” against Taliban. Almost a decade of stalemate was snatched from the jaws of victory.
The writing is fast-paced and personal, creating a “you are there” perspective of nonstop intensity where every road trip was a Hell for leather full throttle race to get past danger. Shaffer had to contend with being trapped in an IED-created gridlock while Taliban snipers prepared to shoot; and make a split second life and death decision whether a child was truly a terrorist threat or just a decoy used as bait for a contrived outrage. Not surprisingly for Shaffer, he chose not to shoot the child (properly as it turned out). His voice is that of a Jack Bauer with values and vulnerability – fearless, but committed to a moral code grounded in respect for humanity. He was intolerant of ¬– and dissents without restraint – against torture on grounds that it is unnecessary, inhumane and counterproductive. But he was so effective that the Army awarded him the Bronze Star.
His dissent as a whistleblower was his downfall. While Shaffer survived the Taliban, he was professionally felled by bureaucratic friendly fire. The roots? While in Afghanistan, Shaffer briefed the visiting 9/11 Commission in detail about suppressing and ignoring Able Danger. After expressing initial excitement and urgency, the Commission staff cut off communications. The issue vanished, although Able Danger had caught the roots of 9/11. The intelligence community so didn’t want to know about an issue too hot to handle, politically, that the whole Able Danger operation was broken up and reorganized into the bureaucratic shadows. Apparently, the 9/11 Commission didn’t want to know, either?
Instead, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) put Shaffer under a retaliatory investigation almost as soon as he disclosed the story to Commission staff. While he was fighting in Afghanistan, criminal investigators were scouring his life and all records to see if they could find anything wrong. Here’s what they found: less than $300 in arguably un-reimbursable expense claims, and “undue award of the Defense Meritorious Service Medal” (the Bronze Star)?!? Based on those charges, his security clearance was suspended immediately. Shaffer’s reaction at the time: “You’ve got to be kidding.” Although the Army later promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves, without his clearance Shaffer was exiled from returning to the front lines. Within 18 months the clearance removal was finalized, and the DIA fired him because he no longer had it.
Shaffer learned the hard way: no matter how surreal or downright Kafkaesque, security clearance reprisals are no joke. He didn’t have a chance, because (despite the absurdity) the same institution that concocted the pretexts was their judge and jury. This is the kangaroo court reality of security clearances, which are the Achilles heel of whistleblower rights for the three million government and contractor national security employees for whom clearances are a job prerequisite. Throughout the government, security clearance retaliation is the almost kneejerk harassment of choice against national security whistleblowers. It is a back door way to fire them without the work of due process. And the retaliation’s effects are worse than mere termination. The grounds to remove a clearance are that an employee is deficient in loyalty to the United States, or trustworthiness. For whistleblowers who do not have an independent source of credibility, losing their clearance is akin to a scarlet “T” for Traitor on their professional chests. As a practical matter, it means lifelong blacklisting in any profession whose mission is fighting national security or defense threats. What could be more effective in silencing those who would commit truth to abuses of power?
That is where the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 743 and HR 3289) comes in. It makes whistleblower reprisals through witch hunt investigations and security clearance actions illegal throughout the federal government, while establishing minimum due process standards for agency clearance actions and an inter-agency appeal board that will be the first step toward independent review of agency decisions. The WPEA also establishes free speech rights within government channels for DIA and other Intelligence Community employees. These first steps hardly will level the playing field for national security whistleblowers. But they are steps that have to be taken, and the reform will end the blank check for intelligence bureaucracies to silence, fire and blacklist national security whistleblowers without the muss and fuss of defending their retaliation.
Not surprisingly, intelligence agencies like the DIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) feel a little defensive about Shaffer’s story. But they inadvertently beat the drums for his story through a self-caricature of suppression and censorship. The Pentagon bought the first 10,000 uncensored copies on sale and destroyed them. After the Army had initially reviewed and approved the text with minor deletions, DIA and NSA learned of its release and demanded that it be gutted. Entire pages are blacked out; and intact pages are the exception rather than the rule. Because some advance releases of uncensored versions circumvented the “book burning” mass purchase, DIA and NSA’s belated censorship was futile.
Circumventing the censorship also lets us know what the government meant by DIA chief and Lieutenant General Ronald L. Burgess’ warning that release of the book “could reasonably be expected to cause serious damage to national security.” What was in these dangerous passages? Well, for example, there is an innocuous, non-professional reference to actor Ned Beatty. The second-most highly censored text is that which notes the NSA headquarters is located in Fort Meade, Virginia. So much for credibility.
All national security whistleblowers should read this book (and buy the Army-only censored version online!) So should the politicians in the House of Representatives who are threatening to kill the WPEA unless intelligence community and security clearance whistleblower rights are removed from the bill. Whistleblowers like Tony Shaffer are the modern Paul Reveres whose warnings are ignored at the peril of our nation’s safety.
Don’t just read this book. Write to your congressman, senators and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and demand they pass the WPEA without further delay. And demand that they not censor the reform’s security clearance and intelligence whistleblower rights. If America is to be safe, our Paul Reveres need legal rights to defend themselves against bureaucratic friendly fire.