A Brief History Of Intelligence Whistleblowing Whistleblowing in the intelligence community faces a special set of challenges designed to make sure complaints get heard while protecting classified information. It doesn't always work well.

A Brief History Of Intelligence Whistleblowing

A Brief History Of Intelligence Whistleblowing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/765322834/765322835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Whistleblowing in the intelligence community faces a special set of challenges designed to make sure complaints get heard while protecting classified information. It doesn't always work well.


We still don't know the name of the whistleblower who filed the complaint about President Trump and his phone call with Ukraine's president. That's the way it's supposed to be. A system that was set up for the intelligence community is designed to protect whistleblowers, but it doesn't always work that way. Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: A veteran of the National Security Agency, Bill Binney decided to blow the whistle in 2001. He says he was fed up with what he was seeing.

BILL BINNEY: Because of all the corruption involved in contracting and money management and all kinds of things of that nature.

MYRE: Then came the al-Qaida attacks on September 11 of that year. He decided to stay a while longer at the NSA. But a month later...

BINNEY: When I found out they were starting to spy on the entire population of the United States, I decided I had to get out of there as fast as possible because I couldn't be a party to this kind of activity.

MYRE: He retired and took his complaints to the House Intelligence Committee and later the inspector general at the Defense Department. Binney, in turn, was investigated by the FBI, and his house was raided. His identity was leaked, and he's had trouble finding work. He was never charged with the crime. And the surveillance program he and other whistleblowers complained about turned out to be a costly failure.

BINNEY: They were blackballing us in the community and around the industry as the FBI and the Department of Justice and the NSA were blackballing us basically.

MYRE: High-profile whistleblower cases in the intelligence community are rare and don't often end well for the person filing the complaint. The whistleblower making accusations against President Trump has not been identified and is protected from retaliation, yet the president and many Republicans are already attacking the character and the motives of the whistleblower. The acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, was appointed by Trump just two months ago. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, he insisted he'll shield the whistleblower.


JOSEPH MAGUIRE: Mr. Chairman, my job is to support and lead the entire intelligence community. That individual works for me. Therefore, it is my job to make sure that I support and defend that person.

MYRE: U.S. whistleblower laws date to the country's earliest days, but the system set up specifically for the intelligence community was established in 1998. Eleanor Hill was the inspector general of the Defense Department at that time and testified before Congress. She said there were two big concerns.

ELEANOR HILL: Make sure whistleblowers feel comfortable coming forward when they have a legitimate reason to do so. And secondly, by doing that, minimize the chance that the whistleblower is going to instead leak that in an unauthorized way to the public.

MYRE: Hill says an inspector general overseeing a National Security Agency has a special obligation because so much of that work takes place in secret. If they don't deal with a valid complaint, it may never be addressed. As inspector general at the NSA in the early 2000s, Joel Brenner says he was allowed to operate independently and tackle sensitive issues. But he says it's also important to look into the motives of the whistleblower.

JOEL BRENNER: The number of hotline complaints that we used to get in my office always spiked right in the week after promotions were announced.

MYRE: They often came from those who felt slighted.

BRENNER: They're all kinds of cranky people in every organization, and you've got to sort the wheat from the chaff.

MYRE: As a CIA analyst, Patrick Eddington became convinced that U.S. troops were exposed to chemical agents in the 1991 Gulf War. He believes it caused the widespread illness known as Gulf War syndrome. When he could not persuade his bosses at the spy agency, he and his wife, who also worked at the CIA, quit and went public. They paid a high price as he said in an interview with NPR's Morning Edition.


PATRICK EDDINGTON: You know in our case, you know, we wound up having to sell our house. And it was an extremely traumatic experience. But if you're a person of conscience and you see something like this going on, at the end of the day, you either act, or you can't live with yourself.

MYRE: He offered a word of caution to the current whistleblower; your life will never be the same.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.