National Security Watch: Disquieted whistle-blowers
CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. The first annual National Security Whistleblowers Conference, held on this tiny resort island, has to be one of the more unusual gatherings of intelligence veterans in recent years. The nearly 20 current or former officials from the FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and even the supersecret National Security Agency who make up the core of the conference share an unusual distinction: They are all deeply out of favor with their longtime employers.
After speaking up, either internally or publicly, about alleged wrongdoings, many have been pushed out, typically under a cloud of usually unrelated but classified personal allegations. Many are still fighting to preserve their careers or at least their reputations. Most cannot discuss the allegations they are making in detail because the specifics are highly classified. Some even have trouble outlining the alleged violations that ended their own careers. The agencies they work for also refuse to answer questions about the specific cases.
So this disparate lot of intelligence and law enforcement veterans came together this week to see what they might all have in common. The tone was deeply pessimistic. In the wake of 9/11, many in Washington had voiced strong support for whistle-blowers like Colleen Rowley, the FBI analyst who wrote a memo laying out a series of failures in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, who had been arrested while attending flight school a month before the al Qaeda attacks. But the current and former officials at the conference said that today's climate in Washington has never been worse for whistle-blowers. Citing what many referred to as the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy amid their war on terrorism, several panelists bemoaned the difficulty of government officials raising allegations of government abuse, fraud, or incompetence without suffering retribution in their careers.
One of the biggest names of the conference never even uttered a word. Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer is the military intelligence operative who recently went public with a controversial claim that a year before September 11, his top-secret task force "Able Danger" was able to identify the man who later turned out to be the lead hijacker as being connected to al Qaeda. Shaffer is a veteran of top-secret operations against terrorists, including some in Afghanistan, and several of his DIA colleagues have come out publicly to confirm that they remember Mohamed Atta being identified in 2000 as part of a project that combed through public databases looking for hidden links. But these allegations have been vigorously denied by the Pentagon and the White House, while several members of Congress are investigating. Shaffer was slated to speak but instead sat quietly by as his lawyer, Mark Zaid, spoke for him.
"Tony is not allowed to talk," Zaid said. "He is effectively gagged from talking. He is gagged from talking to Congress."
Indeed, while Shaffer's case is being championed by Republican Rep. Curt Weldon, the Pentagon has prohibited him from speaking further to members of Congress without prior approval. He has already watched the Pentagon revoke his security clearance. Zaid says that the Pentagon cited a series of old, unsubstantiated claims that had been addressed during his routine security screenings earlier in his career. "When he was 15, he took some pens from the U.S. Embassy where he was doing an internship," Zaid said. "This is one of the reasons" Shaffer was given for the revocation. Officials also brought up several newer allegations, including two small claims of unauthorized expenses, as well as an allegation that he accepted an award to which he was not entitled. Zaid says that Shaffer disputes all the allegations and can offer evidence in his defense.