1984: CIA War Against Whistleblowers

Joe Biden did not want journalists to go to jail for printing classified information, but he supported the CIA’s efforts to crush whistleblowers and leakers.

(Original Caption) Los Angeles: Author and former CIA agent Philip Agee talks to reporters at a press conference 10/28. At the press conference Agee and 3 other former CIA agents announced they were forming the Center for the Study of Covert Action and that they will lead a national campaign to end covert operations in third world countries.
Author and former CIA agent Philip Agee talks to reporters at a press conference on Oct. 28, 1987, in Los Angeles. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

In the years following reforms to CIA oversight in the late 1970s, the agency persistently sought to circumvent the restraints that were imposed. In response, a rash of whistleblowers and leakers began going public with inside information about the CIA’s activities. Among them were Philip Agee and a group of other former spies who, attempting to stanch agency support for brutal dictatorships, wrote books and started publications to out CIA actions and dirty operations around the world. “We opposed that use of the U.S. intelligence service for those dirty operations,” Agee later said. “And I’m talking about regimes now that tortured and disappeared people by the thousands.” Though Joe Biden at times objected to CIA-backed laws targeting journalists who published classified information, he emerged as one of the CIA’s most important allies in Congress by attacking the leakers and whistleblowers themselves.

In 1984, according to a declassified CIA document authored by then-CIA Director William Casey, Biden secretly abetted the agency’s efforts to further criminalize leaking. Casey said the CIA needed to “attack the leak problem again in every possible way — legislatively, administratively, and every conceivable way.” The CIA was concerned that defense attorneys for leakers were using a tactic called “graymailing,” wherein they would seek classified documents through discovery in an effort to quash prosecutions. Biden was the chief architect and sponsor of legislation in 1979 to stop such graymailing and, in a speech at Stanford University, said there had been between 40 and 60 “serious breaches of national security ranging from outright murder to major espionage” that went unprosecuted because of government fear that more secrets would be exposed. Biden’s legislation, which was signed into law as the Classified Information Procedures Act, empowered the government to “delete specified items of classified information from documents to be made available to the defendant through discovery” and “to substitute a summary of the information for such classified documents.” This move would undermine a whistleblower’s ability to argue that their actions were intended to expose government wrongdoing or the illegality of classified actions.

Casey’s declassified 1984 memo complains that prosecutors were not following Biden’s law and described a verbal smackdown that Biden privately gave to the Justice Department as “particularly significant” support for the CIA’s anti-leak campaign. Casey lauded Biden for “the tongue lashing he gave Justice for their passive attitude and general ineffectiveness.” The CIA director also celebrated Biden’s “demand that if his grey mail legislation which he sponsored was not enough to enable them to go after leaks, they tell him what else needs to be done.” Casey wrote: “This may all make for an opportunity to launch a more effective campaign against leaking which can cost us the great bulk of intelligence assets if it keeps up.” Casey ordered his CIA staff to “come up with a program of action” against leakers, including pressuring Congress to criminalize any and all leaks regardless of the intent of the leaker. “The public generally regards intelligence leaks as interesting, even titillating and perhaps useful in exposing governmental excess,” the CIA asserted in another declassified memo, adding disapprovingly that “leakers are seen as vaguely heroic figures akin to whistleblowers.” The agency characterized “Senator Biden’s helpful attitude” about stopping leakers as “gratifying.”

“While Casey and Biden were first united in their hatred of leakers, their perspectives diverged as the ’80s wore on,” observed Daniel Boguslaw in The American Prospect. “Casey advocated for more subtle and insidious ways of targeting leakers and the journalists who covered them, while Biden endorsed a Manichean application of the Espionage Act—still used today to obliterate the lives of ‘bad’ whistleblowers.”

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