I’ve gotten a lot of unwelcome mail from the feds these last few years, like a copy of my indictment for blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program. But this latest delivery was something altogether new.
My jaw dropped as I scanned the form letter from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) informing me of a “cybersecurity incident.” Hackers, reportedly from China, had worked their way into the U.S. government’s computers and stolen personal information related to every single federal employee who ever filled out an application.
I left government in 2011 after serving two years with OPM, 14 years with the CIA, and two years with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I’m one of millions of government workers, past and present, whose personal data — including Social Security numbers — was compromised.
OPM said it would generously pay for 18 months of identity theft insurance. Thanks a lot, Uncle Sam.
I don’t much care if the Chinese know that I’m a former CIA officer. It’s no secret. I published a bestselling book about my years at the CIA. I give interviews in the press and on TV speaking out against torture. I lecture at colleges and universities about ethics in intelligence operations.
But the information the Chinese stole included my original application to the CIA — my Standard Form 86. That form included information on my family members, friends, neighbors, and references. That means their information was probably compromised too.
Multiply these breaches millions of times, and that’s a major snafu.
So where were our federal law enforcement agencies? Why weren’t they protecting us? I think I can tell you.
While the hackers were worming their way into government workers’ personal data, the Justice Department was busy targeting scientist Nancy Black of Monterey, California.
Black was a marine biologist accused of “interfering with the feeding of a wild animal” — a felony. She’d allegedly whistled at a whale during a whale watching tour she offered to tourists on her boat. After spending thousands on legal fees, she finally pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of violating the Marine Mammal Act.
She avoided a possible 27-year prison sentence, but still ended up paying a fine of $12,500.
The Justice Department was also vigorously prosecuting John Yates, who captained a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico. A U.S. fisheries official had told Yates to keep any undersized fish he caught separate from larger fish. Instead, Yates threw the smaller fish back into the water, hoping to avoid a fine.
His reward? He was charged with a felony count of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act — a federal law written in 2002 to prevent accounting firms from destroying or falsifying documents. Government lawyers twisted that statute to prosecute Yates for throwing fish in the wrong place.
Yates fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He won, but not before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to defend himself. The Justice Department likely spent millions pursuing and then defending the case.
Meanwhile, the Chinese were hacking our systems.
Picking low-hanging fruit like workers who make mistakes or non-violent drug offenders is a favored tactic of the department. It bankrupts the defendants and forces them to take plea deals, even on lousy charges.
It’s time for the Justice Department to get its act together: Stop targeting hardworking Americans and start protecting the American people.
OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s a former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. OtherWords.org.