Ruling Class Whistleblowers Get Special Treatment

The plea deal for David Petraeus demonstrates that whistleblowers are not all considered equal by our rulers.


I used the term “whistleblower” in the headline because whistleblowers are often, especially over the last few years, charged with divulging state secrets. There are others who divulge state secrets, though they usually don’t deserve to be called whistleblowers because their motives have nothing to do with helping the people hold government accountable. According to the law they have committed the same crime and yet they are either never prosecuted or get extremely light penalties.

Which brings us to David Petraeus.

David Petraeus leaked classified information to his mistress and biographer. At some point someone in our ruling class decided to remove him from power, so that charge was brought forward. But even when we see groups within the regime fighting one another, they often stay aware of the target’s status as one of the ruling class. They give him completely different treatment than they give the peasants who break the same law by leaking information to the public.

[See also, “Whistleblowers Drying Up, Won’t Talk to Journalists or Lawyers Due to Fear of NSA Surveillance.”]

Stephen J. Kim was an arms expert and a State Department contractor who is now serving a thirteen-month sentence for revealing classified information to Fox News because he was concerned about the threat that North Korea presents. He didn’t believe the government was being honest about that country or the danger it posed. Now he is a convicted criminal.

His lawyer, as the New York Times reports, has written a letter pointing to the “profound double standard” in how Kim was treated and how David Petraeus is being treated.

Sorry, but they don’t see it that way. Petraeus is an Important Person. He matters! And besides, feeding his mistress classified information was nothing but an ego-stroking crime. It wasn’t motivated by patriotism or to hold people in power accountable. So his actions aren’t worthy of the same punishment as a dangerous leaker like Stephen Kim.

Mr. Petraeus, one of the most celebrated American generals of his generation, is scheduled to be sentenced next month for giving his handwritten journals — containing notes from his meetings with the president, the names of covert officers and other secrets — to his lover for a glowing biography she was writing about him. The Justice Department agreed not to seek jail time.

No one should be surprised by this.

[See also, “Another VA Whistleblower: Under Investigation for Claiming Hospital Uses Off-the-Record Lists.”]

Do you really think that powerful decision-makers in this country are going to want to inflict serious penalties on a man for being an ambitious, egomaniacal rule-breaker? Imposing a normal penalty on such a person would hit far too close to home. If it can happen to Petraeus it would be thinkable to do it to others. That will not stand, as far as our ruling class is concerned.

The letter, dated March 6, arrived in what are likely to be Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s final weeks in office. And it serves as a sort of epilogue to the leak crackdown the attorney general has overseen. More people have been charged with discussing national security matters with journalists during his tenure than during all previous administrations combined.

Unlike Mr. Petraeus, though, most of those charged were low- or midlevel officials or contractors.

All of these prosecutions, even apart from the penalties that were imposed, showed a double-standard.

The crackdown highlights one of the seldom-discussed, behind-the-scenes realities of national security affairs: Government officials regularly discuss sensitive, even classified, information with reporters. Sometimes these discussions occur in sanctioned meetings between reporters and officials.

And then we find this admission, that secrecy rules are designed to obstruct any kind of democratic decision-making so that the government can operate in an autonomous manner:

Because so much about national security is classified — for years, the well-known fact that the C.I.A. used drones over Pakistan was officially a secret, despite a constant flow of news articles quoting government officials on those missions — it is nearly impossible to have substantive policy discussions without treading into that area. Sometimes, as in Mr. Kim’s case, those conversations are carried out in secret.

That’s not a fluke. That is the reason for the classifications in the first place.

Most putrid of all is the case of another whistleblower whom Petraeus condemned even while he had been engaging in the same behavior!

Last month, a former C.I.A. officer, John C. Kiriakou, was released from prison after serving nearly two years for telling a reporter the name of a C.I.A. officer involved in the agency’s interrogation program. When Mr. Kiriakou pleaded guilty in October 2012, Mr. Petraeus was the C.I.A. director.

“Oaths do matter,” Mr. Petraeus said, “and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy.”

Days after making that statement, Mr. Petraeus was interviewed by the F.B.I. about whether he, too, had illegally disclosed classified information.

Which, we now know, he had. You have to insert the phrase “for some people” into these statement about law and order that our rulers like to make. As in: “There are indeed consequences for some people.” And when such rulers speak of those “who believe they are above the laws,” they really mean  that someone doesn’t know their place. They are confident that only they and their powerful friends are above the law.

The riff-raff needs to be put back down.