09/15/2011 12:15 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

The Truth About Whistleblowing

There have been a spate of cases in the past few months where authors allege the government is trying to stifle criticism by either killing their book outright, or cutting out the offending passages. For instance, former FBI agent Ali Soufan objected to massive cuts made by CIA to the manuscript of his book dealing with 9/11, claiming the organization exorcised information it found embarrassing. Glenn Carle's The Interrogator, a book that describes his career as an Agency operations officer, was heavily redacted before it was allowed to go to publication in July.

I recently left the government to pursue a writing career, but having worked in US intelligence for nearly 30 years, when I hear about these lawsuits, I wonder what Americans outside the DC beltway think. In each of these cases, the authors claim that the government is overstepping its authority in an attempt to avoid embarrassment. Are whistleblowers disgruntled troublemakers looking for attention? Or are courts and federal agencies colluding to squash valid criticism?

Take the case against Ishmael Jones, the pseudonym of a former CIA employee who wrote a book that was critical of the Agency's management. In June, a Virginia court ruled in favor of CIA, agreeing that Jones had not exhausted the Agency's pre-publication review process before publishing his book. Jones argued that he tried to comply, but that the Agency failed to work with him in a timely manner.

Each federal agency has regulations and policies governing an employee's rights to seek outside publication, and it would seem a simple matter for an individual to comply with these rules. But "simple" is not a word you should use to describe any federal regulation. In my experience navigating this process at two federal intelligence agencies, I've found it's not a matter of compliance but rather how these regulations are interpreted, and the interpretation will vary depending on a number of circumstances.

Some circumstances are unavoidable: personnel on review boards turn over. Your case is given to someone just learning the ropes. I worked with someone who spent four years on the Agency's pre-publication review board, and she said training was trial-by-fire. My observations are that CIA's review board's staff attempts to play honest broker but there are times when other pressures -- from an administration that has been criticized in a book by a former CIA officer, or a manager with a vendetta against an subordinate -- make the process slow to a crawl, with no recourse for the employee. It is definitely a politicized process and anyone who tells you otherwise is hoping you are as gullible as a five-year old.

So what should the average American living outside the DC beltway think about these cases? Without knowing any of the authors involved, I bet it's safe to say that there might be other, more personal issues at play, because you don't take on the U.S. government unless it's gotten to that level. But what these people feel is more likely to be along the lines of righteous indignation and profound disappointment in an institution that they trusted, rather than a neurotic need for attention. What should concern citizens more is the lack of serious oversight of institutions that wield such tremendous power: if they feel little compunction to play fair with employees who have spent their lives in service to the organization, how will they choose to deal with the average citizen?