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Former CIA operative talks whistleblowers in Santa Fe

July 16, 2017

Melvin Goodman admits he was a little naïve when he first interviewed for a job at the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1960s.

A graduate student who had served in the Mediterranean as a cryptographer for the U.S. Army, he had already gotten a look behind the scenes at America’s reaction to the launch of Sputnik, the Suez War and the invasion of Lebanon.

Joining the CIA would be a chance to work at what he viewed simply as a large research institution specializing in international relations.

He landed the job.

A couple of decades later, in the early 1990s, Goodman would sit before a Senate committee on Capitol Hill depicting an intelligence system that was corrupt, slanted and unaccountable. For at least a moment, his testimony, which The New York Times described as “startling,” threatened to scuttle the Senate confirmation of the CIA’s next chief, Robert Gates.

In a new book Goodman will discuss Monday night at the Collected Works Bookstore, he argues that if there is any hope of reining in America’s sprawling intelligence and surveillance networks, it is whistleblowers like him.

“For me, it was the politicization of intelligence,” Goodman said last week when recounting what spurred him to become a very public critic of the CIA’s top officials. “For [Edward Snowden], it was the unconstitutionality of mass surveillance.”

Goodman, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has become an advocate for whistleblowers. Having gone several rounds himself, he can speak firsthand about a fight he knows is lonely but says is necessary.

But while he believes in the power of transparency and dissent to spur change, he is less optimistic about the power of whistleblowers to make much of a difference in contemporary America.

As he sees it, not even the leaks of Snowden — a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information on global surveillance programs and then fled to Moscow — or Chelsea Manning — an Army intelligence analyst who was convicted of leaking videos on airstrikes in Iraq and other classified materials — could shock Americans into demanding major reforms in the federal government.

If the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did not serve as the catalyst for a major anti-war movement, Goodman said, it is unreasonable to expect that Manning and Snowden somehow would.

An intelligence analyst rather than a spy, Goodman spent 24 years at the CIA. He served as division chief and senior analyst at the Office of Soviet Affairs. He was a senior analyst at the State Department. He also was an intelligence adviser at nuclear disarmament talks and watched the Soviet Union collapse.

While analysts like him saw signs of the communist bloc’s feebleness, he said, the CIA’s leadership twisted intelligence to make the Soviet Union appear to be more of a menace than it really was — the agency was using intelligence to advance political agendas rather than make sound decisions. The same attitude would pave the way to war in Iraq, Goodman said.

Meanwhile, federal spending on defense exploded, he said, and the U.S. missed opportunities to advance peace.

When he left the agency in the early 1990s, Goodman took his fight to Congress, testifying against Gates’ appointment to head the CIA. He accused Gates of serving to “corrupt the process and the ethics of intelligence.”

But, of course, Gates was confirmed to lead the CIA. And a couple of decades later, he would lead the Pentagon as the secretary of defense for George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The politicization of intelligence has only gotten worse and its consequences starker, Goodman said. And the military has come to play an outsize role in driving foreign policy — a role embraced by President Donald Trump.

All over again, Russia and leakers have become daily headline news.

The book was supposed to come out a year ago, Goodman said.

Whistleblower at the CIA: An Insider’s Account of the Politics of Intelligence, the latest of several books Goodman has authored or co-authored, was ready to hit bookshelves last year, he said. But the CIA was slow to give its OK.

“In doing so, they did me a favor,” he said. “The book came out in a more timely period.”

“This country has gone AWOL on national security and foreign policy,” he said, adding that the average American has become less political, the media has been too pliant, liberals have proven just as willing to buy into conspiracy theories as anyone else, and whistleblowers face swift reprisals.

Amazingly few whistleblowers have emerged from the war on terror, he said. He makes a case for restoring accountability in government by encouraging whistleblowers, not persecuting them.

Valerie Plame, a Santa Fe resident and former CIA agent who will discuss Goodman’s new book with him on Monday night, also argues there are too few protections for those who might step forward.

“The cases we know of — it’s very sad how they have been handled,” she said, pointing to Bill Binney, a former National Security Agency staffer who called for an internal investigation of mass surveillance programs. Federal investigators launched a probe that put Binney out of business and led agents to raid his home.

Plame said she does not agree with Goodman on everything, and she wants to talk Monday about other issues, ranging from Russian meddling in the last election to the Trump administration, but this is one particular common point.

“We don’t have adequate whistleblower protections in place,” she said.

Goodman still believes in the importance of intelligence. He thinks the system can work.

“I believe in the world of intelligence,” he said. “I’m not one who wants to shut down the CIA.”

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.

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