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Whistleblowing Sans Frontières: Edward Snowden, Philip Agee, and the Transnational Challenge of National Security Dissent

Image by Christo Drummkopf, via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0.

On July 2, 2013, the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales took off from Moscow but was soon forced to land in Vienna. Morales, who had been attending a conference on gas-exporting countries in Russia, was unexpectedly stranded in Austria after the plane had been denied permission to pass through Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese airspace. The refusal to allow safe passage for a sovereign head of state marked a dramatic breach of diplomatic protocol, with several Latin American nations raising concerns to the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon. The Europeans apologized but offered equivocal justifications for detaining Morales’s plane. Nominally it was a flashpoint between Latin American and European countries, but the incident had in fact been instigated by the United States. Washington had asked its European allies to police sovereign borders and intercept a potential security threat; not the Bolivian leader per se, but officials suspected that the aircraft was also carrying the U.S. national security whistleblower, Edward Snowden.

The previous month Snowden had exposed a vast warrantless surveillance program by the National Security Agency and its global partners. The disclosures generated explosive international headlines about the scope and scale of covert U.S. power, with the whistleblower now seeking refuge. After Morales suggested that Bolivia could offer Snowden asylum shortly before departing Moscow, U.S. authorities pressed the Europeans to impede the plane. Snowden was not on board (he was stuck in Moscow, where he remains to this day) and the Europeans sheepishly allowed the flight to continue. On his return to Bolivia, Morales was given a rapturous welcome. “North American imperialism uses its people to terrify and intimidate us,” he declared to supporters at La Paz airport, “I just want to say they will never frighten us because we are a people of dignity and sovereignty.” Morales went on to urge the Europeans to “free themselves from the United States empire.”[1]

At the center of the furor was the fate of a 29-year-old American whistleblower. The episode touched familiar nerves for many in Latin America—the clandestine meddling of U.S. intelligence agencies; Washington’s hostility toward leftist and socialist regimes; the violation of their sovereignty—and  confirmed the close collaboration between U.S. and European security services. The United States’ desire to capture Snowden triggered the closure of international borders on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently the whistleblower had been at the heart of the U.S. national security state, with access to its most sensitive and secret information. Snowden’s revelations sparked a frantic manhunt by Washington to stop his movement. It was a logical response for tracking a fugitive (i.e. revoking a passport, guarding borders). Yet it also demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the transnational nature of the whistleblowing phenomenon. After all, Snowden had made the revelations to international journalists in Hong Kong and was now evading capture thanks to the efforts of a host of state and nonstate actors.

As the episode unfolded, I was in the early stages of writing an article on another U.S. national security whistleblower in exile who made waves in Europe and Latin America almost forty years earlier. Philip Agee had been a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert operations case officer in Latin America during the 1960s before blowing the whistle on his former employer by exposing the machinations of clandestine U.S. power. Agee’s 1975 exposé, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, revealed how the United States meddled abroad by explaining CIA “tradecraft.” It chronicled the day-to-day functions of a covert officer on the frontline as the CIA engaged in espionage, bribery, and support for juntas and police states not averse to torture. It was an unprecedented account of covert action that outlined “the techniques and tools of the trade used to keep a secret operation secret.” Inside the Company was an accessible and popular critique of U.S. power, which exposed its hidden hand and the true nature of American imperial practice.[2]

The book became a popular hit and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It also ensured that its author was in the crosshairs of the U.S. national security establishment. The book was perhaps best known for “naming names” of intelligence employees and collaborators, with Agee explaining this was intended to curb CIA operations by uncovering its methods. The aim was to “expose CIA officers and agents and to take the measures necessary to drive them out of the countries where they are operating.” Furthermore, the approach was rooted in a methodology that used publicly available sources to identify spies from American diplomats stationed abroad. Meanwhile, critics argued that the “naming names” tactic endangered lives and aided U.S. enemies. Their criticisms intensified when Richard Welch, the CIA station chief in Greece, was murdered in December 1975 after his cover was blown. Agee hadn’t revealed Welch’s identity nor was he responsible for the killing, but he was frequently accused of having blood on his hands for promoting exposures.[3] It was a key factor in the creation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA) in 1982 that made revealing covert intelligence officers, whether through classified or nonclassified sources, a federal crime. Agee was also targeted through attacks on his reputation (he was accused of being an alcoholic, a traitor, and a defector, among other things), the revocation of his passport, and censorship of writing. Furthermore, he was considered a national security threat beyond the United States. Agee was refused permission to settle or enter several Western European countries, including a series of high-profile deportation cases in the UK, France, and Netherlands.

I had first come across Inside the Company during graduate study. (In fact, it features on a range of reading lists for a variety of groups, from antiwar activists to prospective CIA recruits.) The book offered a strikingly accurate depiction of the life of a covert operative yet the format—a recreated first-person diary with a retrospective tone—meant it was a useful but tricky primary source. The opening of Agee’s personal papers in 2009 offered a unique opportunity to examine his whistleblowing in greater detail.[4] As I researched in the collection, one of the most striking aspects was the extent to which Agee’s journey from the inner sanctum of the national security sphere to radical outsider was a transnational story. It was a tale that went beyond narrow questions of national security, espionage, and loyalty.

Agee’s transnational existence, living and operating across and through nations, was both a choice and necessity. He collaborated with activists and groups seeking to restrain the power of national security regimes in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. Agee wrote and spoke widely on CIA covert operations in countries from Argentina to Zaire, as well as being active in solidarity campaigns with Central American nations. His post-CIA life—including stints in Britain, Cuba, France, Grenada, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Spain, and West Germany—relied on a broad international spectrum of sympathetic activists, publishers, authors, intellectuals, revolutionaries, peace movements, civil rights organizations, and ordinary citizens. Nonstate actors were crucial during the writing of Inside the Company and supporting Agee in subsequent decades. This included artists, writers, and activists like Gabriel García Márquez, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robin Blackburn, Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Fonda, Philip Noel-Baker, Costa-Gavras, Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and Christopher Hitchens. After his U.S. passport was revoked, Grenada and Nicaragua extended Agee passports out of solidarity.

Discussions of transnationalism are often reduced to abstractions and theories involving academic buzzwords. Yet the lived experience of transnationalism is not linear, utopian, or something that excludes the state. Agee’s peripatetic existence was far from comfortable or romantic. Nor was the state powerless against whistleblowers working across national borders.

The U.S. government has taken an acute interest in the backstory of national security whistleblowing, arguably more than historians. Yet their attempts at a historical perspective are not to understand the deep history or characteristics of the phenomenon, but to shape present-day debates and expand legislation that criminalizes whistleblowing. In his first public address as CIA director in 2017, Mike Pompeo outlined that the threat posed by the likes of Snowden and Chelsea Manning originated with the author of Inside the Company. “Today, there are still plenty of Philip Agees in the world, and the harm they inflict on U.S. institutions and personnel is just as serious today as it was back then.” Pompeo warned, “Because while we do our best to quietly collect information on those who pose very real threats to our country, individuals such as… Snowden seek to use that information to make a name for themselves. As long as they make a splash, they care nothing about the lives they put at risk or the damage they cause to national security.”[5]

Pompeo was engaging in common tropes on national security whistleblowing. Refusing to discuss the contents of the disclosures, the state focuses on the character of the whistleblower and reduces the question to one of loyalty. The latter, rooted in the binary world of espionage, where one is a patriot or a traitor, is a familiar feature of whistleblower debates: are they a hero or villain? The U.S. government also rejects the basic premise of national security whistleblowing in the public interest. Since the early twentieth century, it has insisted that any revelation of national security information represents an “unauthorized disclosure” that threatens the security of the nation. Prosecutions through the espionage statues reinforce notions of disloyalty, by emphasizing the person disclosing secret information and not the contents of the disclosure or the notion of public interest.[6]

The contemporary “war on whistleblowers,” which began during the presidency of Barack Obama through unprecedented prosecutions via the Espionage Act, has continued with Donald Trump. Whistleblowers are jailed for “unauthorized disclosures” under the World War I era espionage statutes.[7] Other legislation is being modified. In July 2019, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to expand the IIPA by widening the definition of “covert agent” from the original act created to curb the likes of Agee. Press freedom and transparency advocates have widely criticized the move, which has increased penalties and expanded the ability to prosecute journalists, whistleblowers, and other advocates seeking to uncover wrongdoing and abuse in the national security sphere.[8] Such steps are consistent with a broader pattern since the 1970s of stricter policing of national security information and the state pursuing government officials, past or present, that place said information—which is not always classified—in the public sphere. The history of U.S. national security whistleblowing reveals that the United States government retaliates against individuals making any public interest disclosure.[9]

For all the differences between the whistleblowing of Agee and Snowden—i.e. form, scale, classification of information—there is a distinct similarity: the transnational nature of their revelations and actions. Their exposures were made in exile using clandestine skillsets (ironically, taught by the U.S. national security state) to disseminate information. They were assisted by groups and individuals working across borders. Both had their passports revoked in a bid to curb their movement and activism. Agee lived the rest of his life outside the United States, which is likely to be Snowden’s fate if he is to avoid a jail sentence. And most crucially, both brought the form and method of U.S. covert operations and surveillance culture to the attention of public audiences in the United States and far beyond. History shows that the U.S. government clamps down on whistleblowing through traditional tools that control the movement and words of individuals. Yet these are of limited use in an increasingly global world linked by sophisticated technology. It also increases the likelihood that future whistleblowers will seek exile and the support of transnational networks and supportive states.

Unlike Morales’s presidential plane, it is hard to stop national security revelations at a national border.


Kaeten Mistry is Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of East Anglia. He has been leading a research project on whistleblowing and national security disclosures, with recent publications including an article in the Journal of American History (September 2019) and, as co-editor with Hannah Gurman, Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy(New York, forthcoming).


[1] “I governi europei bloccano il volo di Morales per 10 ore per paura che ci fosse Snowden,” Corriere della Sera, July 3, 2013, https://www.corriere.it/esteri/13_luglio_03/snowden-volo-morales-bloccato-a-vienna_01b5bdbe-e378-11e2-a1f9-62e4ef08d60d.shtml?refresh_ce-cp; “France Apologises to Bolivia over Jet Row,” Al Jazeera, July 4, 2013, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2013/07/2013747914179924.html; “Morales Back in Bolivia after Plane Drama over Snowden,” Reuters, July 4, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-security-snowden/morales-back-in-bolivia-after-plane-drama-over-snowden-idUSBRE9610C520130704; “U.S. Officials Scrambled to Nab Snowden, Hoping He Would Take a Wrong Step. He Didn’t,” Washington Post, June 14, 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-officials-scrambling-to-nab-snowden-hoped-he-would-take-a-wrong-step-he-didnt/2014/06/14/057a1ed2-f1ae-11e3-bf76-447a5df6411f_story.html.

[2] Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (London, 1975), 82.

[3] “Statement by Philip Agee,” undated [circa October] 1974, folder 64, box 17, Philip Agee Papers (Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University); “Philip Agee on Exposing CIA Agents,” letter to the editor, Washington Post, Feb. 23, 1976, A18.

[4] Agee’s papers were vetted by the CIA on arrival to the United States from storage in Cuba in 2009. There are few indications as to what was removed nor an overview of the original holdings. Both the U.S. and Cuban governments have not commented on the papers. It is nonetheless a remarkable collection, including declassified government documents and personal correspondence covering Agee’s time at the CIA up to his death in 2008, and the only one currently accessible relating to national security whistleblowing.

[5] “Director Pompeo Delivers Remarks at CSIS,” Central Intelligence Agency, April 13, 2017, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/speeches-testimony/2017-speeches-testimony/pompeo-delivers-remarks-at-csis.html.

[6] Hannah Gurman and Kaeten Mistry, “The Paradox of National Security Whistleblowing: Locating and Framing a History of the Phenomenon,” in Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy, ed. Mistry and Gurman (New York, forthcoming).

[7] Lloyd C. Gardner, War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, from Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden (New York, 2016); “Reality Winner, Former N.S.A. Translator, Gets More than Five Years in Leak of Russian Hacking Report,” New York Times, Aug. 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/23/us/reality-winner-nsa-sentence.html; “Former FBI Agent Gets Four Years in Prison for Leaking Classified Documents,” Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/former-fbi-agent-gets-four-years-in-prison-for-leaking-classified-documents/2018/10/18/be6eab54-d2ed-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.html; “Ex-intelligence Analyst Charged with Leaking Information to a Reporter,” New York Times, May 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/09/us/politics/daniel-hale-leak-intercept.html;

[8] “House Passes Intelligence Bill That Would Expand Secrecy Around Operatives,” New York Times, July 17, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/17/us/politics/house-intelligence-authorization-act.html; “Expanding the Covert Agent Secrecy Law Threatens to Chill Reporting,” Just Security, July 25, 2019, https://www.justsecurity.org/65053/expanding-the-covert-agent-secrecy-law-threatens-to-chill-reporting/

[9] Mistry and Gurman, Whistleblowing Nation.

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