I’m receiving a bit of attention for work I did in 1983. There’s a documentary film being shown at the Sundance Festival next month, “The 414s,” that’s about a group of young computer hobbyists in Milwaukee that I investigated over thirty years ago. It was the FBI’s first hacker case, and it was my first experience with a media feeding frenzy. For the most part my name was kept out of it back then. I was the affiant for a search warrant that was made public, but the attention was on the story of the hackers. One of the young hackers got his picture on the cover of Newsweek.
The producer of the film, Chris James Thompson, phoned me one day a couple of years ago, and told me about his project. He wanted to interview me on camera. As I’ve done with my novels about fictional FBI Agent Rob Hanson, The Magician’s Secrets and Devil’s Oath, I did what I’m obligated to do by a contract I signed at least twice, once upon joining the FBI and again just prior to retirement. I followed the mandated policy of pre-publication review. I asked the FBI’s permission to grant the interview.
The FBI said “yes” with a set of instructions regarding what I must say (that I was not speaking on behalf of the FBI), and what I couldn’t say (I was to reveal no secrets). Chris and his crew showed up a few months later, and for the three or so hours I was “on camera” I did my best to stay within bounds. There were still details, thirty years after the fact, I felt obligated to keep to myself.
I haven’t timed it, but I estimate I’m on screen less than a minute. And that’s quite enough. I handled a difficult assignment (mostly due to the novelty of the crime, at the time) competently, and that’s what FBI Agents are supposed to do.
It did remind me, though, of FBI Agents and other federal employees who for various reasons fail to comply with the pre-publication review requirements. For example, just about every retired agent who shows up as an “expert” in this or that on news broadcasts. And many who’ve authored books about their work, fiction and non-fiction. The ones who do it for fame and fortune distress me.
My emotions are much more mixed regarding the whistleblowers. Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” brought down John Mitchell and Richard Nixon. Technically, he didn’t violate the policy since he had authority as Deputy Director to approve his own releases. He did, though, keep the fact that he was the source from the Director and the Attorney General. Coleen Rowley and Frederick Whitehurst put their jobs on the line when they, after pursuing internal channels with little success, revealed to the public flaws they perceived in counter-terrorism investigations (Rowley) and laboratory forensic procedures and testimony (Whitehurst).
And then there’s Edward Snowden. Mark Felt only had to trust Woodward and Bernstein for his protection. Snowden has to trust Putin for his. Although many do, I believe we should not judge the whistleblowers too quickly.