Do Whistleblowers Threaten Security When Telling Congress of Spies' Lies?
Showdown comes this week on a Senate proposal to shield whistleblowers
A Battle is brewing between the White House and Congress that could determine how much power the nation's secret spy agencies can wield in the future and how much say the public should have in the oversight of their operations.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At the heart of the dispute is who has the right to know what the CIA and other intelligence agencies are up to, particularly when their operatives are involved in illegal activities and lie about them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has passed a provision that would ensure that whistleblowers will be protected if they report such "wrongdoing" to Congress, even if it has to do with classified information.
The White House has threatened to veto the provision, claiming it violates the administration's constitutional right to ensure national security. This week, the House Intelligence Committee is expected to decide whether to back the White House or side with the Senate. Either way, there will be a showdown that some analysts contend could have serious constitutional ramifications.
"This could set an extremely dangerous precedent," says Morton Halperin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The controversy was sparked by Richard Nuccio, a high-level State Department employee who discovered the CIA had misled Congress about what its operatives knew about two killings in Guatemala. One victim was Michael Devine, an American citizen living in Guatemala; another was Guatemalan rebel leader Efrain Bamaca, who was married to American lawyer Jennifer Harbury.
The CIA and Guatemala
The CIA originally told Mr. Nuccio it had very little, if any, information on the killings. He relayed that to Congress.
Then, Nuccio stumbled on a highly classified document that indicated a CIA asset in Guatemala was implicated in both cases. Having unintentionally misled Congress, he found himself with a moral dilemma.
After struggling for several months, Nuccio decided to tell then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, what he had discovered.
"Having been an observer of the Iran-contra hearings and a former congressional staffer, I thought that was what I was supposed to do," says Nuccio.
Security clearance denied
Mr. Torricelli, now a senator from New Jersey, took the revelations to the press. The ensuing brouhaha led to an investigation into the intelligence agency's actions, and two CIA employees were subsequently fired. Meanwhile, the State Department stripped Nuccio of his high-level security clearance, known as Sensitive Compartmented Information.
After the initial fallout from the disclosure, the State Department recommended his security clearance be reinstated so he could get about his business. But the CIA balked. Nuccio and his lawyers appealed to then-CIA director John Deutch, claiming the high-level security clearance was a vital tool in his job as a senior policy adviser at the White House. The CIA was unmoved.
"By going after Nuccio in this manner, the CIA is sending a chilling message to executive branch employees who uncover wrongdoing," says Duncan Levin, a public policy analyst at the Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit civil liberties think tank in Washington.