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By John Siman
Our last great patriot, our last true American hero, was Ernie Fitzgerald, who passed away at age 92 on January 31 of this year. We should commemorate his life with a national holiday.
I write these words as someone who as of three days ago had not even heard of Ernie Fitzgerald. But I’ve spent these last three days reading Tom Mueller’s brutally-researched book about whistleblowers, somewhat innocuously entitled Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, — and I am here to say that I feel beat up by the brute facts of the matter. That’s what I mean by brutally-researched. Mueller has interviewed more than two hundred whistleblowers (Nader and Ellsberg among them) over the past seven years, and he immerses the reader in the tragedies — almost all of the outcomes of truth-telling in this, our Age of Fraud, are tragic — of a handful of these men and women, true patriots who strove “to put loyalty to highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or government department” and were spied upon, isolated, intimidated, fired, ostracized, and publicly vilified for so doing.
“I just followed my nose from one great character to another,” Mueller told me, “not fully understanding until perhaps two years ago, after the initial shock and bewilderment of Trump’s election had worn off, that the central message of my book was the health of the American Republic, the falsehood of its claims to being a moral nation.”
And foremost among these men and women who somehow felt impelled to live by the highest moral principles in a country that had become officially immoral was — Ernie Fitzgerald. An especially gifted and, more remarkably, a truly visionary industrial engineer, he left a lucrative private consultancy in 1965 to join the Air Force as a deputy of management systemsbecause he saw there, as Mueller writes, “a unique chance to help end the monstrous growth of military spending, a disease that he felt had afflicted the United States since his childhood” (p. 68). Fitzgerald saw there, in other words, a New Goliath, one potentially more ruinous to America — to the world — than Hitler, than Stalin, — and he saw there also the opportunity to face this monster down.
What Fitzgerald saw so presciently two generations ago was the inevitable hypertrophy of the National Security State(if one uses the terminology of Truman’s National Security Act of 1947), of the military-industrial complex (Eisenhower’s terminology in his farewell address in 1961) — of, really, a global for-profit military + corporate cancer designed, ultimately, to slurp up and digest or perhaps just annihilate the wealth and resources (human and otherwise) of every square inch of the planet earth.
Fitzgerald identified the economists and policymakers who sanctified this profit-yielding cancer as The High Priests of Waste (the title of his 1972 book about his war against the military-industrial complex): “ ‘Like primitive witch doctors, they had their idols and their mysterious, esoteric rituals which required long training to perform, but they neither questioned nor thought much about fundamental causes and effects’ ” (Fitzgerald as quoted by Mueller, p. 71). Well, of course not, because their intent back then — as it is now — was fraud, and fraud requires the systematic obfuscation of fundamental causes and effects.
Fitzgerald formally initiated his combat against the profit-yielding cancer, against the Blob, against the New Goliath in 1968, when, having been invited to testify by the reform-minded Senator William Proxmire, he “committed the truth” (p. 76) to Congress and encyclopedically exposed billions of dollars of criminal fraud in the Lockheed C-5 aircraft program.Retaliation from the Pentagon began almost immediately. And within a year President Nixon gave the order for the “son-of-a-bitch” to be fired. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird carried out the order.
And so began three and a half decades of fighting back, fighting heroically back, fighting in the courts and fighting in the Air Force. Fitzgerald formed a lifelong anti-fraud alliance with Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa (who is still in the Senate and 86 years old now), and he was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Reform Act of 1978. But how did Fitzgerald view his fight, his noble combat, in retrospect? Here is what he had to say in a 1998 interview. Thirty years after he had first committed truth, Fitzgerald spoke with bitterness and sarcasm:
Our military establishment may not have won a war in forty-three years, but it has managed to pull down the world’s greatest industrial colossus. This could not have happened without the concomitant disintegration of institutional checks and balances in business, government, and society…. The collapse of management controls and moral standards radiated outward from the Pentagon’s acquisition community, the ripened fruit of the noxious military-industrial complex weed that President Eisenhower warned us about. The problem is that the fruit, though deadly to liberty and lasting prosperity, is addictive. Almost all who partake are hooked, and the addiction has spread far beyond the military and its suppliers. The weed now chokes formerly productive industrial fields not directly involved in supplying the military. Greed, institutionalized dishonesty, and legalized stealing have corrupted not only the military but also segments of Congress, prestigious universities, and even whole civilian communities … (Fitzgerald as quoted by Mueller, p. 72).
So our David is dead. Goliath won. The cancer that was introduced in 1947 metastasized and continues to metastasize. Consider the pessimism with which Mueller writes as he draws near the conclusion of this very long (94 pages!) chapter on the fate of whistleblowers in the belly of the military-industrial complex:
Even when their efforts fix specific problems, most whistleblowers are forced to acknowledge that the underlying abuses still occur…. Ernie Fitzgerald, Chuck Spinney and Dina Rasor revealed gross waste and fraud in military contracting, which resulted not only in inferior weapons but also in direct risk to soldiers, yet the same kind of wrongdoing persists…. In the military-industrial complex, things are worse than Fitzgerald or Eisenhower could ever have foreseen. The United States currently spends more on weapons than the next ten leading weapons-producing nations combined…. Despite this enormous outlay, the US military has not won a significant war since 1945 (the First Iraq War had to be refought, and the protracted conflict in Kosovo ended only when the Russians stopped supporting Milošević); the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have degenerated into grinding, slow-motion defeats that show the mismatch between American military strategy and real combat”(pp. 132-133).
Cory Doctorow, in his review of Edward Snowden’s new whistleblowing book, most helpfully (for us laypeople) outlines the basic algorithm for executing the current stage of Infinite For-Profit War and its concomitant “Beltway Banditry,” — that is, Doctorow makes very plain to us the latest sure-fire method for putting into practice the super-innovative next-generation banality of what used to be called evil: “Since Congress,” Doctorow writes, “never says no to a budget request, the [spy] agencies can ‘hire’ more people than they are permitted simply by contracting with Dell or IBM or Booz-Allen or some other military-industrial swamp-dweller to fill positions, and since these companies operate on a ‘cost-plus’ basis, collecting a percentage of the salaries they pay, everyone is incentivized to charge as much as possible for these deniable contractors” (Cory Doctorow, “Permanent Record: Edward Snowden and the making of a whistleblower” in Boing Boing, September 24, 2019).
The whistleblower Bill Binney, described by Mueller as “one of the NSA’s greatest living code-breaking mathematicians” (p. 467), states the matter aphoristically: “Keep the problem going, to keep the money flowing” (p. 472).
In the military-industrial complex, things are worse than Fitzgerald or Eisenhower could ever have foreseen…
But now we can see the same algorithm of metastasis also at work in our medical-industrial complex (from which the indefatigable Bernie Sanders sincerely wishes to rescue us), in our fossil-fuels industrial complex (against which our most outspoken champion is a Swedish teenager with Asperger’s), in our bullshit-industrial complex (I, personally, am old enough to remember newspapers and freedom of the press), and, most recently, in our woke-industrial complex (of which no living American politician dares speak).
I told Mueller that I had started to cry as I read his account of Ernie Fitzgerald’s lifelong combat, and he replied that he had gone to visit Fitzgerald a couple of years before he died. “He was in a nursing home in Falls Church,” Mueller said. “His senile dementia was pretty advanced by then. But he did ‘sign’ his book, The High Priests of Waste, for me: a little scrawl that contains bits that bear some resemblance to E and F. It’s one of my prized possessions.
“He also engaged with me with strong, clear eye contact,” Mueller continued. He said my name when I introduced myself — ‘Tawm,’ with his Alabama accent. He remembered it and said it again when I said farewell, something that his daughter was startled by — she thought he was too far gone to remember something like that. It was very moving.”
Over seven long chapters and almost six hundred pages Mueller unveils a dismal phantasmagoria of obstinate whistleblowers, one after another after yet another shunned and fired and reduced to the status of moaning wraiths by their former colleagues.
The anxious (though intrigued) reader, once acquainted with the career of Ernie Fitzgerald, might do well to approach the book by reading the seventh chapter first, to which Mueller has given the Orwellian title “Ministries of Truth.” For in this chapter Mueller tells the sickening story of the nightmarish malfeasance of the National Security Agency during the years in which it was headed by retired U.S. Air Force four-star general Michael Hayden, perhaps the most despicable villain in this book (and since 2017 a national security analyst for CNN). At the NSA Hayden launched a hardcore “contractor-centric strategy” (p. 474) for hoovering up extra billions of federal dollars. As so many other top-level administrators have done.
But what made the tragedy of Hayden’s bureaucratic tenure truly Æschylean was the termination— in the weeks before 9/11 — of genius cryptanalyst Bill Binney’s breakthrough ThinThread program for analyzing metadata in order to make way for a purely money-generating program called Trailblazer.
In August 2001, senior NSA management terminated the ThinThread project. Having disposed of the competition, the agency pressed ahead with Trailblazer…. By 2005, Michael Hayden admitted in congressional testimony that Trailblazer was badly over budget and behind schedule. In 2006, his signature program for the modernization of the National Security Agency was terminated, without ever having produced one piece of usable intelligence, at a loss to taxpayers that my sources have put at between $1.2 billion and $8 billion, though the total figure has never been made public.
But Trailblazer cost America more than money. “Trailblazer was the largest intelligence failure in the history of the NSA,” Binney told me. “By killing ThinThread and going ahead with Trailblazer, the Agency traded the security of the nation in exchange for money.”
This assessment isn’t merely the sour grapes of a manager whose program lost out to a competitor in an office turf war,. Tom Drake, who remained at the agency after Binney and the others retired, describes how, shortly after 9/11, he used ThinThread as a testbed to analyze information in the NSA databases from the weeks preceding the attacks. The program, he says, swiftly pinpointed each of the terrorists involved, their communications and movements before the hijackings and their dispersion patterns afterward.
“The promise of creating the national security state was that America would never again be surprised,” Drake told me. “nstead, three thousand people were murdered. Instead of providing for the common defense, as per the Constitution, Trailblazer was used as an excuse to get more money’” (p. 478).
In the margin of this page of my copy of the book I wrote, “How to express sufficient outrage???” Well, at the end of this chapter Mueller does articulate his own, hard-earned outrage. He begins by recalling the Reichstag fire of 1933, which was perhaps the archetypal false-flag operation in modern history:
In his slim, brilliant book On Tyranny, historian Tim Snyder observes that the Nazis rose to power by ‘manufacturing a general conviction that the present moment is exceptional, and then transforming that state of exception into a permanent emergency. Citizens then trade real freedom for fake safety.’ The Reichstag fire gave Hitler the exception he needed, what James Madison had called ‘some favorable emergency,’ to suspend the basic legal rights of all Germans….
Mueller continues to build:
We have watched the Reichstag burn twice in the last two decades. If 2008 was a quiet coup in finance, during which Wall Street, in the name of exceptional and emergency circumstances, appropriated vast wealth from ordinary citizens in ways those citizens never fully understood, and therefore couldn’t effectively resist, so 9/11 began a takeover of the commonwealth by intelligence and military leaders, a putsch, unvoted and undiscussed, from which our constitutional rights and our democracy have yet to recover. In the aftermath of both crises, Barack Obama, though elected on a promise of change and transparency, explicitly chose to look forward rather than back…. [T]he Obama administration fought tirelessly, in the courts and the press, to conceal Bush’s torture, rendition, domestic surveillance and targeted drone killing from public view (not least because Obama himself continued the surveillance and targeted killing) (pp. 518-519).
And now, as Mueller proceeds with his argument, we must face the tragic anagnorisis, the very bad news which we should have suspected all along: the recognition of our erstwhile golden boy as a soulless fiend:
The resulting popular incomprehension and apathy about post-9/11 and post-2008 abuses emboldened leaders in the financial world and national security to consolidate and further extend their powers, in a dysfunctional feedback loop that, by now, has effectively disabled many crucial checks and balances of our republic. The aftermath of 9/11 proved Eisenhower’s military-industrial prophecy, as zealots welding fear and secrecy empowered America’s dark side, a shift cemented by later apologists more intent on executive power than on justice. When, on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, Bush and Obama appeared on screens at NFL games across the nation to rehearse their joint national mythology of terror, redemption and business as usual, they were two facets on the same monolith of state control, two exponents of an enduring imperial presidency (p. 519).
Meet the old boss … same as the new boss … same as the old boss …
But it gets worse. For the more intrepid reader might see here that Mueller’s logic can be extended in an even more nauseating manner: If Bush and Obama were essentially “two facets on the same monolith of state control,” is there then any truly substantial difference between Obama and Trump? Oh yeah there is: Obama just tweeted a photo of himself fist-bumping Little Greta. Because he Cares about Climate Change. Because he’s joined the Children’s Crusade. (But why then did he buy a to-die-for Martha’s Vineyard mansion with maximum beachfront exposure to the rising climatic tide?) No, this is too dark an inquiry! So I asked Mueller about his rhetorical equation of Bush and Obama.
“I know full well,” Mueller answered,“that George Dubbyah and ‘Black Dick’ Cheney were worse. They tortured, they invaded, they spied on Americans, they sidelined the law and the constitution. But at times I feel about Dubbyah and ‘Bammer as I feel about pedophiles and priest pedophiles. The former are revolting and must be stopped. But the latter are even worse, because they preach salvation to you while killing your soul.”
Let us return now to the words quoted at the beginning of this essay: to putloyalty to highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons, party, or government department. This is the first of the ten principles of the Civil Service Code of Ethics. Ernie Fitzgerald kept a framed copy of them in his office in the Pentagon. Fitzgerald called them his Ten Commandments (p. 74). To put loyalty to highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to persons…: this was Fitzgerald’s First Commandment. And his Ninth Commandment was this: Expose corruption wherever discovered.
* * *
During the past week daily, even hourly, news about various whistleblowers has been broadcast at an almost surreal rate. It seemed quite fitting therefore to engage Tom Mueller in a realtime, living epilogue to his book. I asked him three big questions: one about Snowden, the second about Julian Assange/Chelsea Manning, and the third about the still-anonymous Ukraine-Trump-Biden-CIA whistleblower.
John Siman: What is your take on Edward Snowden? I have just read an essay in which Snowden is presented as a kind of faux whistleblower, a whistleblower impersonator, if you will. (And now President Trump is making essentially the same sort of claim as he defends himself against the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry: The so-called whistleblower, he says, is not an actual whistleblower.)
Tom Mueller: I am constantly amazed at how otherwise sensible, indeed extremely intelligent people, can be deflected so easily from the prima facie evidence on Snowden — or apparently want to drift away from it themselves.
Here’s one ugly example: Malcolm Gladwell’s peculiar pseudo-comparison of Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg in The New Yorker a couple years back, in which he basically said that, since Ellsberg was the quintessential military-industrial insider, had advanced degrees and leaked specific things — The Pentagon Papers— he’s a true whistleblower, whereas — regurgitating reflexive national security whistleblower-demolition narratives cross-pollinated with bizzaro anthropological theory — Snowden, a young, not-college-educated fellow who leaked a far wider range of materials is a narcissistic hacktivist.
Daniel Ellsberg told me he was baffled at the number and seriousness of the factual errors in Gladwell’s “argument,” as well as the fact that Gladwell hadn’t consulted him or Snowden, and that he vehemently disagreed with Gladwell’s distinction between his own whistleblowing act and Snowden’s. Which, it seems to me, are important data points.
Another: Tamsin Shaw in The New York Review of Books, whose argument boils down to: Edward Snowden is in Putin’s Russia; Putin’s Russia, it turns out, corrupted our elections and is a nasty country; ergo Edward Snowden is a nasty person in league with Putin.
I have not interviewed Snowden, and I haven’t read his book yet (though I will soon). I have however interviewed some of his lawyers, many other NSA whistleblowers past and present, and other members of the national security/intel establishment. The basic facts seem clear to me — subject, again, to course correction after I’ve read Snowden’s memoir:
1) While working at the NSA, Edward Snowden became increasingly convinced that the Agency was violating the Constitution and several laws by spying on Americans without obtaining warrants, and other crimes and misdeeds.
2) He wished to make this wrongdoing known to the maximum number of people. He also wished to provide as comprehensive a documentation of as wide a spectrum of wrongdoing as possible.
3) As we are seeing today with the DNI whistleblower mess, so back when Snowden was deciding what to do, the whistleblower mechanism and the entire inspector general apparatus at the NSA, and in the intel community in general, were profoundly broken.
4) As proof of this breakage, he saw what happened to earlier NSA and other intel whistleblowers — Tom Drake, Bill Binney, Diane Roark et alii — who attempted to make their disclosures through channels: Their names were handed over by the DoD Inspector General to the FBI, their doors were kicked in and Glocks pointed at their faces, there were years of judicial retaliation, careers were permanently terminated, and — worst of all for a whistleblower — relatively limited attention was paid to their disclosures. And, as usual, the narrative was turned from the wrongdoing they witnessed to the purported wrongdoing they committed.
5) Snowden believed he had to remain at large in order to interpret and explain the complex documents he released.
6) Given current DOJ blunt-weapon use of Espionage Act prosecutions, with no possibility of a public interest defense (under Obama prosecutors actually managed to secure a precedent ensuring that the whistleblower cannot even explain to the court or a jury why they did what they did), and certain long-term jail time with no media access, Snowden chose to leave the US.
7) He was bound for Ecuador to seek political asylum (attempting to go to school on Assange) when he was stranded, en route, in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. His choices there were to surrender to US extradition demands and stand trial stateside, or to seek asylum in Russia. For reasons 2, 5 and 6 above, he chose asylum in Russia.
Obviously, what happened to his data after he released it to third parties was out of his hands. Hence loads of slack that the ostensibly left-leaning journos of this world — who I suspect are incensed at Snowden for disloyalty to the Obama in-group, for making The Great Liberal Hope look bad (another source of constant amazement and perplexity: how that man managed, and still manages, to bamboozle so many would-be liberals!) — to run with in the directions of conspiracy, subterfuge, and ulterior evil motives that, in my view, simply do not exist and have never existed in Snowden’s mind.
JS: What would you like to say about Julian Assange — and by extension Chelsea Manning — at this point?
TM: I think that Assange is, in today’s world, a fully-fledged publisher and media outlet. He is also an investigative journalist. Accusing him of doing what any investigative journalist worth his or her salt does on a daily basis — try to convince insiders to reveal documentary evidence of crimes and wrongdoing by government or corporate entities, facilitating and coaching those revelations in the process — is not only absurd, but criminalizes the journalistic profession. Trump’s DOJ, with coaching and legal tools supplied by Eric Holder and Team Obama, has crossed the Rubicon on freedom of the press, as in: eliminate it.
Also, one need only watch something like the “collateral murder” video which Chelsea Manning released through Assange to see why we needto reign in colossal military-industrial complex overreach, which in part must be done by informing people what, in actual fact, is being done, on the ground, in our name, in foreign lands, by our government employees with guns, bombs and rockets (aka “US soldiers”).
I don’t actually know what Assange’s formal position on secrets actually is; though my understanding is that he leans towards no secrets, I also believe the Manning materials were curated to eliminate some potentially damaging or deadly revelations of individual identities. But having examined a number of national security prosecutions over the last seven years while writing this book, I’m now a lot closer to the “no secrets” end of the spectrum than I used to be — and very far indeed from the secrets über allesapproach of the national security establishment, who routinely use massive over-classification to conceal embarrassments and outright crimes. We have to stop allowing intel and military leaders to play the treason card, to silence those who would reveal these leaders’ various treasons.
The DOJ’s first indictment of Assange, and especially the second superseding indictment, show just how rabidly against transparency and the rule of law the Department is, in the military and intel spheres.
Additionally, the never-ending refrain that the Manning/Assange, or the Snowden, revelations caused terrible harm to our national security is specious going on absurd. We all know full well, to paraphrase the Ellsberg quote in my book, that if their revelations had led to even just one case of harm, e.g. the decapitation of a US agent, that headless body would be splashed over the front pages of America tomorrow.
We all know full well, to paraphrase the Ellsberg quote in my book, that if their revelations had led to even just one case of harm, e.g. the decapitation of a US agent, that headless body would be splashed over the front pages of America tomorrow.
JS: And Ellsberg is still going strong, half a century later. So let me ask you about him and Sam Adams, the CIA analyst who discovered that General Westmoreland was lying about enemy truth strength in Vietnam and who testified on Ellsberg’s behalf in 1973. Sam Adams had a cattle farm over the mountain in Loudoun County, in Waterford, Virginia — I have a friend over there who used to hang out with his son Clayton, so I’ve heard stories about how, on the old farm, Sam Adams buried trash bags full of documents about Vietnam so the CIA wouldn’t be able to destroy evidence! Did Ellsberg tell you much about him?
TM: He didn’t, but Patrick Eddington, the CIA whistleblower I profile [in the “Ministries of Truth” chapter: “Eddington, like Bill Binney and Tom Drake, believes that had ThinThread been implemented as directed by Congress, it would have averted the tragedy of 9/11” (p. 501)], told me that Sam Adams and his book War of Numbers was the single most important inspiration for him to become a whistleblower. Whistleblower narratives breed further whistleblowing — a general rule of human behavior, I’ve found. Which means two things:
1) It’s vital to get the narratives out there, so more and more people can be positively “infected” by them, and have the whistleblower option firmly in mind before they enter dicey ethical water in the midst of a tight-knit, mission-centric Team, which is apt to drown out individual conscience.
2) It’s equally vital for the perps to clamp down on whistleblower narratives, make whistleblower outcomes as Æschylean — I loved your term!! — and ugly as possible, to make other potential whistleblowers think thrice before tooting.
JS: Thank you so much, Tom. The moral of your book is, at least for me, that we need to fight for truth, even if it looks like truth will get memory-holed, and even if it looks like we will get beaten down into conformity and silence for trying, like Ernie Fitzgerald, to commit truth.
TM: Well, John, like so many of the whistleblowers in my book, who made their revelations even while knowing full well the retribution they would inevitably face, we essentially have no choice but to commit truth.