Who Wants To Be a Whistleblower? If No-one Does, We’re In Trouble

There is a species currently threatened with extinction. Climate change is not to blame. Nor is Darwin’s theory of evolution, or some chance discovery made by Sir David Attenborough in the Galapagos. I’m talking about whistleblowers. These are people, who, at grave risk to themselves, reveal information that the public has a right to know about. But at this moment in time they have a bullseye on their back. They’ve been turned into targets of opportunity, as governments around the world, try to control all of the exit routes on the information superhighway. Before he became the US President, Barrack Obama, said he valued whistleblowers. He promised to protect them. But, sadly, what he said was not what he meant. They turned out to be weasel words. Promises, worthless and empty, as you might expect from politicians and the morally bankrupt. Instead, Obama declared war on whistleblowers. And a man called Jeffrey Sterling is one of the casualties. He is a former member of the CIA, who was involved in a top-secret operation to provide Iran with bogus plans to sabotage its nuclear program. His career story reads like a James Bond novel.

Sterling joined the CIA in May, 1993. Two years later, he became operations officer in the Iran task force of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division. He held a top-secret security clearance and had access to sensitive information, including classified cables, CIA informants, and operations. After training in the Persian language in 1997, he was firstly sent to Bonn, Germany, and two years later to New York City to recruit Iranian nationals as agents for the CIA and also as part of a secret intelligence operation, codenamed Merlin, which literally gave intentionally flawed nuclear designs to Iran, in 2000.

Here’s how it worked. From early 1998 to May 2000, Sterling had assumed responsibility as case officer for a Russian with an engineering background in nuclear physics and production, which the CIA employed as a mule to pass flawed design plans to the Iranians. In April 2000, Sterling had a significant falling out with his employers. He filed a complaint with the CIA’s Equal Employment Office alleging racial discrimination. The CIA subsequently revoked Sterling’s authorization to receive or possess classified documents and placed him on administrative leave in March 2001. Sterling’s lawsuit, alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination, was dismissed by a Federal judge after the government successfully argued that pursuing the case would involve the disclosure of classified information. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, ruling in 2005 that “there is no way for Sterling to prove employment discrimination without exposing at least some classified details of the covert employment that gives context to his claim.” Sterling was one of only a handful of African-American case officers employed by the CIA. He was ultimately fired from his job early in the Bush administration. The prosecution alleged that Sterling tried to blow the whistle on Operation Merlin by trying to give evidence to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 and when that didn’t work he decided to leak classified information to New York Times reporter and author James Risen for his 2006 book, “State of War.” Sterling then faced charges under the Espionage Act. The Justice Department portrayed Sterling as an “angry” and “vengeful” man who was “disgruntled” rather than righteously upset with corruption and cover-ups. Prosecutors alleged — and the jury agreed — that Sterling was trying to get his revenge on the CIA when he talked to Risen about a CIA operation that was meant to deter Iran’s nuclear program. The case drew special attention when federal prosecutors initially sought to subpoena Risen to testify against his will. Though they won in court, the Justice Department ultimately decided not to force the reporter to take the stand and give evidence at the trial. Risen had vowed to go to jail before he would reveal any sources. Federal Attorney-General Holder said that the verdict proved “it is possible to fully prosecute unauthorized disclosures that inflict harm upon our national security without interfering with journalists’ ability to do their jobs.” Since his department’s legal battles with Risen, Holder has tightened the guidelines governing investigations that involve journalists. The trial itself was a spectacle, with CIA officers testifying behind a retractable grey screen as they described suitcases full of cash, clandestine meetings and fictitious back stories. The case against Sterling was largely circumstantial — there were no recorded phone conversations or captured e-mail exchanges that show he passed leaked classified information to Risen — and that omission required prosecutors’ to delve deeply into Sterling’s work and the details of Risen’s book. According to the prosecutor, Sterling was the only potential source who had a relationship with Risen, knew of the information and had a motive to discuss his clandestine work. They argued that the book — which suggested that the secret operation might actually have helped further Iran’s nuclear research — was somewhat inaccurate and that it cast Sterling as a hero and the CIA as hapless fools. “Jeffrey Sterling’s spin is what appears in the book,” prosecutor Eric Olshan said. Sterling’s defense attorneys argued that several people, other than Sterling, could have served as Risen’s source, and they suggested Sterling was unlikely to have given the reporter any information. In any case, they argued some information in the book could not have come from Sterling, because it addressed matters that happened after he left the CIA or contained details that he would not have known or remembered. Sterling became only the fifth person in the history of the United States under the Espionage Act, to be charged with mishandling national defense information. In a hearing at the U.S. District Court in 2011, Sterling’s defense attorney, Edward MacMahon, entered a not guilty plea. But Sterling was convicted of espionage on January 26, 2015. His defense attorney Barry Pollack said after the hearing that Sterling’s lawyers plan to take the case to a higher court “This is a sad day for Mr. Sterling and his wife,” Pollack said. “We will pursue all legal avenues with the trial court and on appeal to challenge Mr. Sterling’s conviction.”

What is significant here is that the Sterling case is not the first of its kind against whistleblowers. Other people who have tried to speak out  include former National Security Agency manager Thomas A. Drake, and former CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for disclosing a covert operative’s name to a reporter. Federal authorities are still considering whether to lay charges against several high-profile individuals in other investigations, including former CIA director David H. Petraeus, veteran State Department diplomat Robin Raphel and retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright. Dan French, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York who now does corporate work for a prominent law firm, said irrespective of whether prosecutors won or lost the Sterling case, they would in future aggressively prosecute whistleblowers. “I just think they’re going to bring these cases continuously to demonstrate that type of conduct by a government employee or a government contractor is going to be prosecuted, because the risk is just too grave,” he said.

Very bad news for anyone who believes in upholding free speech, and keeping our Governments accountable.

First Class Women Second Class Treatment When It Comes To Celebrating Lives

It’s always good to be reminded of how far we haven’t progressed. In two thousand and fifteen years of civilization we still treat women as second-class citizens. The glass ceiling, restricting career growth for women, remains largely un-shattered. Women still earn less than men even though they do the same job. And women are expected to make all of the career sacrifices when it comes to raising a family. In fact the second class tag seems to be especially apparent when the woman concerned has a led a first class life that achieved greatness. Take acclaimed Australian author, Colleen McCullough, who recently passed away at the age of 77. McCullough was a neuroscientist before she discovered that she had a supreme talent for writing best sellers. Her book, The Thorn Birds, sold 30 million copies worldwide. As you would expect with someone of McCullough’s stature, an obituary was written ostensibly to celebrate her high achieving life and published in an Australian national newspaper. Here is the opening paragraph. You be the judge: “ Colleen McCullough, Australia’s best-selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nonetheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: “ I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.”

Now, you might want to ask what did we learn about Colleen McCullough from that introduction? Forget about the fact that she was a best-selling author. What is more important is that despite her ‘plain’ looks she could still attract a man, and that, ladies and gentlemen is worth celebrating. Of secondary importance was the fact that McCullough was a woman who penned The Thorn Birds, still the highest-selling Australian book of all time. And after working as a neuroscientist in Sydney, she went on to write that particular book during her time in the neurology department at Yale University. This is a woman who also wrote an acclaimed and methodically researched, seven book historical series called Masters of Rome, which won her diverse fans including Newt Gingrich. She is someone who accomplished an astonishing amount during her life, and here she is, reduced in a moment to her looks and her ability to attract men. As one columnist wryly observed, you could be forgiven for wondering if the obituary really wanted to say “Well, she was fat and not much of a looker, but somehow she managed to do ok in life, bless her”.

Now, if you think I am over-reacting, or being thin skinned, consider this. When Bryce Courtenay, an equally successful Australian author died in 2012, his obituary in the same newspaper began: “ Bryce Courtenay, was one of Australia’s greatest storytellers, touching the hearts of millions of people around the world with 21 bestselling books including The Power of One.”

A comparison of the two opening paragraphs speaks volumes.

Sadly, this is not an issue restricted to this particular newspaper, even though it is a clear and hideous example of it, or to McCullough herself. When the accomplished and brilliant rocket scientist, Yvonne Brill, passed away in 2013, the New York Times was strongly criticised for their obituary, which began with:

“ She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said. “ But Yvonne Brill, who died on Wednesday at 88 in Princeton, N.J., was also a brilliant rocket scientist, who in the early 1970s invented a propulsion system to help keep communication satellites from slipping out of their orbits.”

Once again, a woman’s life full of incredible accomplishments is reduced to her position in relation to a man, and how good she was as a mother and a cook. As another columnist pointed out, the very fact that these outrageous obituaries are still being published, demonstrates how little has changed, and how women’s lives are still disrespected. It shows us that a woman’s physical attractiveness and relationships with men have greater weight than her personal accomplishments.

Brill was a brilliant rocket scientist, as well as a woman and a mother. As if all three were mutually exclusive. Colleen McCullough was plain and overweight, but she was warm and had wit and could attract men. These ‘attributes’ were hardly worth mentioning at all, let alone in the first paragraph of her obituary. What a shocking indictment that the summation of the exceptional lives of these two women, centred around their roles as wives, mothers or their ability to attract men.  Brill invented a rocket propulsion system for keeping communication satellites in orbit. But as far as the New York Times was concerned it was only worth a mention in passing.

That is not to say that personal relationships, husbands, wives and children are not vitally important in many people’s lives and should be included in a retrospective. But, all too often, women are firstly classed and summed up by the roles they play in a relationship, rather than by their personal achievements. The life of a brilliant male scientist would never be reduced to his looks, or how many wives he had. He would be remembered first for what he achieved in his career.

The McCullough obituary also dived into personal details of dubious relevance, such as the fact that her father was revealed to be a bigamist, and that she had married a man who was 13 years her junior. Seriously, so what?

Yes, evidently you can be a neuroscientist who wrote a mega-selling series of books in your spare time, but what will be most remarkable about your colorful life will be the fact you didn’t let your ‘plain’ looks hold you back.

I am so glad that social media rode the crest of the wave of disbelief in response to the patronizing McCullough obituary. With tweets like:

“Award for worst opening lines of an obituary goes to “… #everydaysexism pic.twitter.com/xmQogrR58P — Joanna McCarthy (@joanna_mcc)

“McCullough was a successful writer & neurophysiologist, but “she didn’t let being fat & ugly get her down” was the best they had. — Sophie Benjamin (@sophbenj)

“Colleen McCullough died this week, though of course her relevance as a human died much earlier, when she started overeating.” — Anna Spargo-Ryan (@annaspargoryan)

As yet, there has been no response from the newspaper concerned regarding the outcry over its canine of an obituary. But one columnist writing in a rival newspaper took the same approach to a noted male author, rejigging their obituary to reflect what was described as this brave new era in posthumous hatchet jobs:

“J.R.R. Tolkien was, a touch shrivelled and certainly orc-esque in his latter years, he nevertheless was a prolific and talented fantasy weaver.”

Touche.

Cover Up – Book Blogger’s Interview

For those of you who might be interested, I was recently interviewed by a book blogger, Sonya Alford, in the United Kingdom about my new book, a work of non fiction called Cover Up. She is also hosting a competition to win a free copy.

Here is the link:

Interview with Damien Comerford + Competition

My New Book Cover Up

I think I might have mentioned that I have just written a non fiction book called Cover Up. It re-investigates five of the world’s biggest crimes: the death of Princess Diana, the death of Pope John Paul I, the probably murder of former US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, The plane crash in Gander, Canada that killed 250 members of the 101st Airborne and the assassination of President Habyarimana which triggered the genocide that killed one million people.

As part of the promotion for my book, I was interviewed by Talk Radio Europe. Here’s a link to listen to the interview:

http://www.talkradioeurope.com/clients/dcomerford.mp3

And of course make sure you buy a copy from Amazon in Kindle or Paperback. Here’s the link:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1500314021?ie=UTF8&tag=httpwwwgoodco-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1500314021&SubscriptionId=1MGPYB6YW3HWK55XCGG2

If you buy my book please leave a review on either on either Amazon or Goodreads or both. Here is the link to my Goodreads page:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22610845-cover-up

Happy reading !

Sometimes I Don’t Understand Our Legal System

Sometimes the legal system needs to metaphorically hang its head in shame. It will make decisions based on some bizarre notion of political correctness instead of exercising plain common sense. Instead of upholding free speech, as you might expect in a healthy democracy, the legal system subjects it to a full blooded, frontal assault.

A well known British performing artist has been forced by a court to shelve plans for a book detailing his own childhood sexual abuse after (get this) his ex-wife was granted an injunction because their young son might read what he wrote.

Quite separate from the issue of the book banning, this case has already been the subject of some of the most intense and blanket suppression orders I have ever come across in 30 years of journalism. It makes a mockery of the notion of open British justice.

The performing artist can’t be named. The performance art that he is known for can’t be identified. His book publishers can’t be named. The ex-wife can’t be named or identified nor can their son. The exact age of their son can’t be released other than to say: “he is approaching teenage years.”

The ex-wife moved away from the United Kingdom after the couple, were divorced in 2009. But the country she moved to can’t be identified other than to describe it as a place called “ Ruritania.” Why they decided to call it that is anyone’s guess. Maybe the learned judges read too many Harry Potter books.

Seriously, this is Noddyland. The performing artist claimed he had a couple of compelling reasons for wanting to write the book. Firstly, to help him come to terms with a particularly dark and traumatic period in his life and secondly, to encourage other victims, who might have endured similar abuse, to come forward and tell their story.

In successfully applying for the temporary injunction, the man’s ex-wife relied on a legal case dating back to 1897. It involved a man who played a practical joke on an East London pub lady but was found guilty of the “intentional infliction of mental distress.”

The legal action was launched after a copy of the manuscript was leaked to the ex-wife. She said she was acting on behalf of their son who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as attention deficit disorder and a number of other health problems. She claimed that publication of the book would be a misuse of private information and what her husband was doing amounted to negligence. She also argued that both she, and her former husband, had agreed to a court order at the time of their divorce to prevent their son from learning about the past lives of both parents which could have a detrimental effect on the boy’s wellbeing.

However, the court rejected any suggestion of negligence on the husband’s part. It said parents could not be liable for damages that might arise from parental decisions, made everyday, that might impact on their children. Similarly the court rejected the ex-wife’s claim that the manuscript was a misuse of private information. The book was about the performing artist not his son.

But even though it rejected these legal arguments, the court still found it was necessary to grant a temporary injunction.

In granting the injunction, the court said the performing artist’s book was semi-autobiographical. He was highly successful in his chosen career, despite a tormented childhood. He had endured sexual abuse at school over a number of years, which caused him to suffer physical effects as well as mental illness. He also got a thrill out of self-harm. But through his art he had discovered a means by which he could cope with the trauma of the past. In the manuscript, which the court read, the performing artist was described as having written with clarity and purpose offering some new perspectives on his life and career. But despite this, the court ruled no-one should be allowed to read it.

The court said while it accepted there was a public interest in the book being published, it decided to grant the injunction so that a trial could take place at a later time on the over-riding issue of whether the son’s rights should have precedence over the rights of the father.

Needless to say this case has sounded alarm bells for advocates of free speech. They claim it could establish a very dangerous precedent, which many book publishers say is deeply disturbing because it could undermine the rights of other authors.

A British group that lobbies to defend the rights of writers says the court’s decision paves the way for the injunction of memoirs of any work of non-fiction that may expose or investigate the past. The case allows an aggrieved party to cite the distress of a relative or friend as grounds for censorship.

Another group, Index on Censorship warned that this case represented yet more erosion of the boundaries of freedom of expression.

The performing artist says his right to free speech and the written word is particularly acute and should be respected because of what he went through. I, for one, wholeheartedly agree with him.

Penn Book Review

A PRB Starred Review

An articulate, principled work on five mysterious world crimes in an era of press handouts and news curation.  The authorities wish for whistle-blowers to become an extinct species, while the world has a responsibility to expose the heinous crimes committed by those in positions of power—let the whistle-blowing begin with Cover Up.

Overall winner at the Qantas Media Awards, investigative journalist Damien Comerford has released Cover Up, which sheds light on five select dark, mysterious, and most-compelling world crimes. All remain mysterious and unsolved, however, the author’s writing points to some interesting conclusions; and not in an average conspiracy theorist way. Secrets of the Alma Tunnel questions the death of Princess Diana and the rigidity of the investigations by French and British Police. A Poison Chalice magnifies evidence that was overlooked after the murder of Pope John Paul I, which possibly prevented the disclosure of Vatican involvement in the Mafia.   Crime on Capitol Hill suggests that political whistle-blowers have, in a sense, an unrealized death wish. Like many others, Ron Brown was about to blow the whistle on a shady political act before he was permanently silenced. Fallen Arrow asks a question so controversial that it takes the investigation of the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles, in an entirely new direction. And finally, Preparing for the Apocalypse makes it clear that the terrible crime of President Habyarimana’s murder, which also led to one of the worst genocides in history, may have been the result of a European superpower.

Comerford’s work is highly provocative, intellectually rigorous, and filled with mysterious insights. Each story is given an in depth analysis and unbiased evidence with a compelling argument. His admirable quest to bring investigative journalism to life in an “era of press handouts and spin doctoring” is realized within the pages of Cover Up.

A political work you likely won’t find on the shelf of your local bookstore; an absolutely brilliant, must-read!

Review for Cover Up

A good conspiracy theory is like a good detective movie. Half the fun is watching the crime unfold and the other half is trying to solve the mystery. And in Damien Comerford’s meticulously researched book, Cover Up, the reader is given more than enough information to try and figure out the secrets behind plane crashes, papal poisonings and the infamous automobile accident that claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales.

The five tragic mysteries explored in this book are each as compelling today as they were the day they occurred. The greatest strength of the book is how well each chapter speaks to a “Where were you on that day?” type of memory that readers will have while still bringing up new ideas. With the trained eye of a journalist, Comerford has collected and organized a tremendous amount of information in this book and he has taken great pains to deliver it without the sort of bias normally associated with conspiracy theorists. And while sometimes that means the book reads like a history essay, this is offset by the more dramatic scenes which introduce the reader to the characters, situations and contexts which become so important later on. Comerford’s stories are equal parts education and guilty pleasure, though it would be nice if the two blended a little more seamlessly.

The trouble with conspiracy theories, unfortunately, is that unlike a good detective movie, we know from the start that these real-life mysteries never get solved. For all the exciting ideas and closed-door scandals the book gives us, there’s not much to say in the end except that we may never know the full truth. It might not give the same type of satisfaction as a crime thriller, but at its core this book is an example of truth being stranger than fiction. One of the greatest pleasures for readers isn’t so much asking What Really Happened? as much as realizing that This Really Happened. Fans of history and true crime alike will find something to love in Comerford’s book.

Portland Book Review