God Help the Squeaky Wheel

Scandals like the Thomas Drake affair—documented last May by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker—can make it seem as if government agency heads are, always and everywhere, petty and vindictive in their demands for secrecy and discipline within the ranks. Drake was a public servant who lost his job for whistle-blowing at the National Security Agency, was indicted under the Espionage Act, and threatened with thirty-five years in prison. His crimes: he told Siobhan Gorman, then a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, about management failures at the NSA, including its rejection of a computer program that would have protected the privacy of American citizens, called ThinThread, in favor of a more costly program that failed to protect citizens and was less effective against terrorists. The program Drake advocated was supported by several other highly regarded employees of the agency, but not by Michael Hayden, its chief. (The government has since abandoned the espionage charge and Drake has pled guilty to the misdemeanor of “unauthorized use of a government computer.”)

Hayden demonstrated the kind of leadership he provided at the NSA with the following memo to his staff. Responding to dissension in the ranks over the abandonment of ThinThread, he complained that “individuals, in a session with our congressional overseers, took a position in direct opposition to one that we had corporately decided to follow… . Actions contrary to our decisions will have a serious adverse effect on our efforts to transform N.S.A., and I cannot tolerate them.”

If this strikes you as just a bit defensive, I share your reaction. But let me try to explain why so many government officials agree with Hayden.

My job in the government was to rub the collective noses of my agency’s top officials in what they were doing wrong and why our programs in the field weren’t working. The agency was the Peace Corps, the time was the first seven years in the 1960s. Our glow of good intentions made it hard for outsiders to criticize us. The result was highly favorable treatment by the press, which had the effect of making it even harder for the top officials to face my news that things weren’t quite as good as they seemed, with too many volunteers being sent to nonexistent or poorly defined jobs, without adequate training in the culture or language of the people they were sent to help.

I took great pride in telling the truth within the agency, even when I knew it would make me unpopular with the senior staff. However—and this is a big however—I felt a loyalty to the agency that made me very reluctant to expose our dirty laundry to outsiders. And those included not only the media but other arms of the government, including Congress, the Government Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget.

I would not lie to these people, but I would studiously avoid volunteering any unpleasant facts about the Peace Corps, for fear that it might be used to hurt the agency I loved and was proud to serve. If they were planning to visit a Peace Corps program overseas, I would suggest one of our best. If they threatened to visit a program in trouble, such as ours in Brazil was for a time, I would remind them of the terrible humidity, the boa constrictors, and every other unwelcoming fact about the Amazon basin that I could come up with. At the same time, I would praise the salubrious climate, the lovely scenery, and the stunning herds of elephant, giraffe, and zebra they would see in Kenya, which just happened to have an outstanding Peace Corps program.

As long as we had frank internal self-evaluation, the Peace Corps could get by without informed outside critics. After the 1968 election, however, the Nixon administration abolished my office, and the loyal desire to protect the agency, left unchecked, ultimately led to the disgraceful concealment of the rapes of female volunteers that has recently come to light. At its worst, this desire to hide the bad news resulted in the agency’s helping a murderer go free. (See American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps, by Philip Weiss.)

As an agency matures, pride in its work as a motive for not revealing the bad news is accompanied or replaced by a concern for the agency’s budget. The one sure way any civil servant can lose his job is if his agency’s budget is cut. And so the survival imperative becomes a strong motive for avoiding excessive candor.

Today I can imagine that there is an even greater reluctance to disclose the bad news. The Republicans in Congress have become so automatically anti-government that they are almost certain to use any critical information to reduce or eliminate an agency’s effectiveness rather than to improve it.

This does not excuse control freaks like Michael Hayden, or the inanity, not to mention insanity, of indicting Thomas Drake for espionage. But I hope it does help explain why good people can feel obliged to conceal their agency’s difficulties, and why it becomes so important for White Houses, congressmen, and journalists who are truly concerned with better government to do enough homework to ask the right questions.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.