A commonly recited criticism of whistleblowers is that they need to go through proper channels or else they are not whistleblowers deserving protection. If they don’t go through proper channels, they are arrogant self-serving leakers who appointed themselves as decision-makers for what information should and should not be secret.

This was the criticism levied against former NSA contractor Edward Snowden after it was revealed that he was the one who blew the whistle on secret surveillance programs. Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker argued that America’s system “offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistleblower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this.”

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone asserted that Snowden “should have presented his concerns to senior, responsible members of Congress. But the one thing he most certainly should not have done is to decide on the basis of his own ill-informed, arrogant and amateurish judgment that he knows better than everyone else in government how best to serve the national interest.”

On MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on June 10, Jeremy Bash, a former chief of staff to secretary of defense Leon Panetta, asserted, “If you have a complaint, you go through this process. You talk to your supervisor. If you don’t trust your supervisor, you go to the inspector general. If you don’t trust the inspector general, you can go to Congress. There are multiple ways to make your concerns heard. Running for China is not one of them.”

Similar statements were made by military prosecutor, Major Ashden Fein, during the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, when rebutting his defense’s argument that he was a whistleblower. Fein said Manning did not read every document he provided to WikiLeaks (specifically, all 251,000 diplomatic cables he disclosed). Manning could’ve gone to a “team leader, squad leader, a chaplain or a JAG” with any concerns about what he was seeing. He could have “exercised his rights under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act.”

“He did not reach out to a congressman about abuses he allegedly saw,” Fein added. The prosecutor also seemed to suggest if he had gone up the chain of command and exercised his rights under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and that went nowhere he would have been able to go to the press as a “last resort.”

One prime example that shows whistleblowers are not protected when they go through proper channels is that of NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake. He, along with other NSA employees, sought to take action against a secret surveillance program that was a private contractor boondoggle rife with waste, fraud, abuse and illegality. Drake and employees went to the Department of Defense inspector general and the inspector general handed their names over to the Justice Department for a leaks investigation.

Now, there appears to be another example that shows how difficult and impossible it can be to go through the “proper channels.”

A major news story by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy features the first public comments from Sabrina De Sousa, a former CIA officer who has revealed details around the kidnapping of radical Islamist cleric Abu Omar in Italy in 2003. She was convicted in absentia for her role in the kidnapping, but she asserts she and others were scapegoated to protect President George W. Bush and other US officials from being held accountable. She also says that “the Senate and House intelligence committees enabled the coverup,” because they failed “to treat her as a whistleblower after she told them of the lack of prosecutable evidence against Nasr and what she called her own mistreatment by the CIA that compelled her to resign in 2009.”

Briefly, Sousa revealed to McClatchy that “former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli, whom she called the mastermind of the operation, exaggerated Nasr’s terrorist threat to win approval for the rendition and misled his superiors that Italian military intelligence had agreed to the operation.”

“Senior CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George Tenet,” also “approved the operation even though there were doubts about Castelli’s case” that Nasr was not “wanted in Egypt” and he was not on the “US list of top al Qaeda terrorists.”

She also told McClatchy that Condoleezza Rice, who was then the White House national security adviser, “had concerns about the case, especially what Italy would do if the CIA were caught, but she eventually agreed to it and recommended that Bush approve the abduction.”

What happened to De Sousa as she tried to call attention to high-ranking officials’ role in the rendition?

According to Landay’s report, De Sousa “tried for years to report what she said was the baseless case for [Omar's] abduction and her shoddy treatment by the CIA and two administrations.” Pleas and letters were sent but went ignored by “US intelligence leaders, the CIA inspector general’s office, members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder.”


She briefly made headlines when she sued the CIA, the State Department and Clinton in 2009 in a bid to secure her diplomatic immunity, but lost. U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell, however, declared herself troubled by the government’s treatment of De Sousa, which she said sent a “potentially demoralizing” message to U.S. employees serving overseas.

De Sousa wanted to resign from the CIA earlier than she did, but, she said, her attorney persuaded her to wait for Barack Obama to take office because he might be more sympathetic to her case.

“We thought, ‘Hope and change.’ But no hope and change happened,” she said.

Instead of having her efforts validated, she has faced a kind of cold shoulder retaliation:

“My life has been hell,” De Sousa said, explaining that her Italian conviction left her career in ruins, crippled her ability to find a good paying private-sector job and left her liable to arrest abroad. Her resignation, which she submitted after the CIA barred her from visiting her ailing, elderly mother in Goa for Christmas, and then refused to fly her mother to the United States, left her without a pension.

“In addition to losing your pension, you’re blacklisted in Washington,” De Sousa said. “Anyone who has anything to do with the agency will never hire you. I lost my clearances.”

This is not different from Drake, who now works in an Apple store after being pursued by the Justice Department under President Barack Obama with charges of violating the Espionage Act. The case collapsed and he pled guilty to misdemeanor of misusing a government computer, but he can never work a job that requires a security clearance again. He can never work in Washington ever again.

Should De Sousa expect to face a leak investigation or some kind of prosecution for divulging information that is still classified? She said to McClatchy the story needed to make clear she did not have any of the cables with her. “Please put that down,” because the Obama administration has engaged in an unprecedented war on leaks.

She believes “this coverup is so egregious.” It has “ruined the lives” of people, including Abu Omar. But, that is unlikely to persuade Justice Department officials to leave her alone if a demand for an investigation is requested by some official internally. Her public comments do not make the Obama administration or the wider national security state look good.

Depending on what kind of impact this news story has, it may force the administration to revisit an issue they do not wish to pay any attention: renditions and accountability for those responsible for executing such operations.

Finally, when individuals like Drake and Sousa are incapable of holding agencies accountable by going through proper channels, government can expect individuals like Snowden to flee the country and then begin a public act of whistleblowing, which government will be unable to control. The government can expect individuals to simply pull documents and find ways to anonymously provide them to a news organization or leaks organizations like WikiLeaks. They can expect conscientious employees to not even bother spending year after year shouting in the wilderness until they are finally heard and then silenced.

Arguments about “proper channels” presume the people overseeing these “proper channels” will actually be responsive to attempts by employees to expose corruption and abuse. When those officials are compromised and become a part of covering for officials a whistleblower may be attempting to hold accountable, there no longer are “proper channels” to go through. They’re instead are dead ends, barriers and cliffs that create a perilous path for anyone with the courage and persistence to take on forces within government.

Read the full story by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy here.