National Security Whistle Blowers: The 'Undead'?

National Security Whistle Blowers: The ‘Undead’?


By Jeff Stein, CQ National Security Editor

You’d think a guy who helped bring down a corrupt congressman would get the thanks of a grateful government.

But you, of course, would be wrong.

Like so many other disillusioned ex-CIA, FBI and other erstwhile spooks, Haig Melkessetian’s career was derailed for telling the truth.

Today, he’s another casualty of Iraq, one of the growing number of national security “undead” in Washington’s intelligence demimonde, “entities that are deceased yet behave as if alive,” according to Wikipedia’s take on the horror flick creatures—“animated corpses,” bureaucratically speaking.

Melkessetian, a former security aide and Arabic translator to Jerry Bremer, the first American proconsul in Iraq, now works in a far lesser job for a U.S. government contractor in the Virginia suburbs.

His first sin: Telling Pentagon officials how screwed up things were in Iraq.

A Beirut-raised former Special Forces operative, Melkessetian told Pentagon officials early in the war that the contractor he worked for had sent unqualified personnel to Baghdad. It was typical of the war’s mismanagement, he said.

Half the linguists he worked with did not speak fluent Arabic, he reported. One was a Russian linguist who spoke no Arabic at all.

That contractor he was working for was the now-notorious MZM, whose president, Mitchell Wade, had an unusually close relationship with then-Rep. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and other high-level politicians with national security connections.

When Wade tried to involve Melkessetian in an MZM scheme to put together a congressional delegation to Saudi Arabia, led by Cunningham, to brush up the kingdom’s post-9/11 image, the former soldier balked: There were too many Saudi connections to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Eventually, of course, Cunningham went to jail for steering contracts to MZM in exchange for $2.4 million.

Wade, too, will almost certainly go to jail, after he finishes telling federal investigators about every palm he greased on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and perhaps the CIA, as part of his plea agreement.

Meanwhile, a federal prosecutor in San Diego has given the House Appropriations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees a Jan. 31 deadline for turning over records related to Cunningham and contractor earmarks.

Sibel Edmonds
Melkessetian’s story is all too typical.

Take John M. Cole, a veteran FBI counterintelligence agent whose 18-year career took a nosedive when he came to the rescue of Sibel Edmonds.

Edmonds is the former FBI language specialist who surfaced in June 2002 with a strange tale of how she had been fired by the Bureau after telling supervisors that a foreign intelligence ring had penetrated the translators’ unit where she worked, among other sensitive issues.

Now why would they do that?

You can’t find out much, because then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft invoked a “state secrets privilege” to stop her suit against the FBI for wrongful dismissal.

A gag order prevents her from adding details to another of her sensational charges, that government eavesdroppers had intercepted the Sept. 11 hijackers plans.

Edmonds, born in Iran of Turkish origins, also claims she discovered unsavory links between U.S. defense and intelligence officials, weapons makers, Israel, and Ankara.

“I wanted to meet her because I wanted to help her,” says Cole, who resigned from the FBI after years of writing unanswered reports about lax security and mismanagement of the translations unit, which handles electronic intercepts of foreign spies, among other materials.

“I thought that I could be of some assistance to her,” Cole says in “Kill the Messenger,” a new documentary film about her case, “because I knew she was doing the right thing. I knew because she was right.”

Cole tells how he had “talked to people who had read her file, who had read the investigative report, and they were telling me a totally different story” than FBI officials, who had only perfunctorily investigated her allegations.

“They were telling me that Sibel Edmonds was a 100 percent accurate, that management knew that she was correct.”

But they buried it.

In 2004, after months of harassment by superiors for his defense of Edmonds, Cole resigned.

A year later, the Justice Department’s Inspector General concluded: “the evidence clearly corroborated Edmonds’ allegations.”

In response, the FBI said it was taking another look at the Edmonds case.

“That investigation is continuing,” it said on Jan. 14, 2005.

In response to a query on Friday afternoon, the FBI produced a 2005 press release on improvements in the translation unit. It was not able to provide further clarification by the end of the day.

Many More
Edmonds, meanwhile, had gone on to create something uniquely Washingtonian: a home for the national security undead.

Launched in 2004, her National Security Whistle Blowers Coalition now has over 60 members, disillusioned former CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, Pentagon, Homeland Security and State Department officials.

People like ex-FBI agents John Vincent and Robert Wright, who saw their careers go south after they blew the whistle on problems in the Bureau’s counterterrorism cases.

And Kevin Cleary, a U.S. Customs investigator whose nearly three decades in law enforcement went off the rails after he “uncovered and reported drug-related public corruption,” including “the compromise of a federal drug interdiction program,” according to his biography on the whistle blower Web site.

There’s Shawn Carpenter, the Sandia National Laboratory employee who was fired after telling the FBI that “hundreds of computer networks at major US defense contractors, military installations and government agencies were being systematically compromised, and sensitive information was being stolen by hackers.”

Edmonds is not the easiest person to get along with, say some whistleblowers who have resigned from or declined to join her organization.

So a number of important whistle blowers remain outside the organization.

People like Mike German, whose forthcoming book, “Thinking Like a Terrorist” covers some of his 16 years as an undercover FBI agent, which ended when he blew the whistle on the corrupt management of a counterterrorism case.

And John Roberts, a 13-year FBI veteran whose career ended after he described alleged favoritism and cover-ups within the bureau on “60 Minutes.”

Roberts told the program he witnessed things “just disappear,” “vaporize” or be “glossed over” in internal investigations that ended without anyone being disciplined.

And then there’s the whistleblowers who suffer in silence, especially at the CIA, where going public is often impossible because of security restrictions.

Occasionally, one busts out, like Gary Berntsen, who led the agency’s first paramilitary team into Afghanistan after 9/11.

In 2005, Berntsen filed suit against the CIA for holding up and over-classifying his book, “Jawbreaker,” which refuted the claims of U.S. officials that Osama bin Laden was able to escape from Tora Bora in 2001 because they didn’t know he was holed up there.

“He was there,” Berntsen says, “and could have been caught.”

With the help of Pakistani agents, it is believed, bin Laden escaped.

Kill the Messenger
During the Vietnam war, a single national security whistle blower, like Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon official who leaked a classified, sordid history of U.S. machinations in Vietnam, could cause an uproar, even play a role in bringing down an administration.

Today, with so many of them walking around Washington, they’re almost ho-hum.

And nothing seems to happen despite their airing their hair-raising tales.

None have had Ellsberg’s impact or notoriety. Most Americans have never heard of any of them.

“Once you start hearing these names, it’s going to become more real to you, the concept of national security whistleblowers,” Edmonds said at the 2004 press conference announcing the formation of her group.

The idea, she said, “was to have a strong group, and go at it collectively and together, not one, not two, not three, but together.”

Army of the Undead.

In the 2005 movie, terrified residents of a small town in Australia only belatedly realize that “you have to shoot a zombie through the head to stop it,” Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson said in his review.

In 1973, Nixon administration operatives proposed to “‘incapacitate” Ellsberg “ totally” to prevent him from giving an antiwar speech, murder the investigative columnist Jack Anderson, and fire-bomb the liberal Brookings Institution.

War can really make people do crazy things.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano took strong exception to last week’s SpyTalk column , in which several anonymous CIA and other intelligence sources described the Agency’s Baghdad operations as virtually paralyzed by sectarian violence in the capital’s streets.

We also quoted outgoing National Intelligence Office chief John D. Negroponte telling the House Intelligence Committee that “not everybody’s bottled up in the Green Zone.”

But here’s Gimigliano’s e-mail in full:

With his recent piece, “Spying in Baghdad,” Jeff Stein did a great disservice to his readers and the men and women of CIA. While there is much about our operations overseas that we cannot discuss publicly, Agency officers throughout Iraq take risks each day to gather intelligence that makes a critical difference to our country. Some of that information is tactical, helping save the lives of American and Iraqi soldiers, and some is strategic, helping our government understand trends in the region.

We know better than anyone the gaps in our knowledge about Iraq. But we also know that CIA’s achievements there are rooted not in the Green Zone, but in the “Red Zone” beyond. Many of our officers in Iraq operate outside the Green Zone every day. To say that violence has “kept the CIA indoors” is simply wrong. And the anonymous source, cited as claiming CIA officers “spend their days playing cards and watching DVDs,” is badly misinformed. Had Mr. Stein contacted the Agency before running his story, CIA would have tried to correct his misimpressions.

Jeff Stein can be reached at