In Episode 2, hosts Walt Shaub and Virginia Heffernan explore a troubling truth: the government lies, particularly when it comes to war.
The government has repeatedly misled the American people to justify starting or staying in a military conflict, leaving whistleblowers and watchdogs the dangerous task of exposing the truth. Military expert Mandy Smithberger recounts how manipulation of intelligence information sent us to war in the Middle East, and activist Ben Cohen talks about the need for consequences when government officials lie us into war. The cohosts speak with John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, about the systemic pressures that led officials to exaggerate success and conceal failures, and he talks about the vital role whistleblowers play.
The episode also features reflections from Ron Ridenhour, who exposed the My Lai massacre and combatted a massive government coverup. His words drive home just how crucial whistleblowers are — and how hard it is for them to tell the truth. Finally, Walt explains what we can do to better encourage whistleblowers to come forward and protect them from retaliation.
The episode opens with Randy Fertel reading a poem Ron Ridenhour wrote after years of combatting government lies, both as a whistleblower and as a journalist:
[00:08] Randy Fertel: What you have to understand about the government is that the motherfuckers lie. That's the first thing. They lie. About the big things. About just about any goddamn thing you can think of when it serves their purpose. Don't get me wrong, you find honest people in the strangest places, so you never stop looking. But skepticism of a broad and deep range of government claims is a good thing.
Randy is the driving force behind the Ridenhour Prizes, which seek to recognize and encourage those who persevere in acts of truth-telling that protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society. Learn more about the Ridenhour Prizes.
Mandy Smithberger weighs in too, at the beginning of the episode. She talks about the manipulation of intelligence information that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
[01:07] Mandy Smithberger: . . . what we saw through that was a real corruption of the intelligence process, where you had people cherry-picking information that they wanted to have in place to be able to get to an end that they wanted — in this case, it was a war with Iraq.
War, what is it good for?
Virginia and Walt talk about how all of the nation’s wars in the last 77 years were fought without a declaration of war. If Congress gets involved at all, it issues an Authorization of the Use of Military Force instead. Over the nation’s history, Congress has only formally declared war in five wars (11 declarations, but only 5 wars).
[04:50] Virginia Heffernan: Not only do wars get started by lies, but the wars themselves are lies. Article I of the Constitution says Congress is the branch with the power to declare war, right? But Congress didn’t declare war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, or any of the other places the president has sent troops since World War II.
[05:39] Walt Shaub: In February this year, 43 members of Congress wrote to Biden. And in a letter, they warned him not to use military force in Ukraine without getting a green light from Congress. And it was a bipartisan group too. It ranged from AOC on the one end to Paul Gosar on the other.
Then there are the lies — as Virginia put it, “the yellowcake powder.” Virginia recalls the hard sell that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave for war in Iraq. Speaking to the United Nations, he declared that “leaving Saddam Husain in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post September 11th world.”
Introducing Ben Cohen, the hosts remember Ben’s moving speech at an antiwar rally in 2002. During his interview with The Continuous Action, Ben lays out the stakes and the problem.
[08:58] Ben Cohen: What’s at stake for the public is that we end up killing, murdering, bombing, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, people just like us, that we have nothing against, that are trying to scrape by like we’re trying to scrape by, and somehow or other, we have bought this surgical strike line from the people that are making billions of dollars off these high tech weapons that do not strike surgically.
The cohosts then talk to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, about the government’s efforts to downplay the worsening situation in Afghanistan.
[26:54] John Sopko: I've been here now since 1982, I worked for Sam Nunn, famous Georgia senator, one of the leaders on national security for years; I worked with him for 15 years. And the one thing he taught me is … the government doesn’t classify good news. Okay? And if by mistake it does, it leaks it.
[27:50] John Sopko: And that’s the sad thing, over-classification and this over exaggeration of success, unfortunately, I think led to people getting killed, and it definitely led to millions of dollars being wasted.
Next, we hear from one of the great American truthtellers, the late Ron Ridenhour. In an excerpt from his last public lecture, Ron shared the story of how he first uncovered the My Lai massacre and how he combatted the massive government coverup that ensued.
[40:08]Ron Ridenhour: After he tells me this story, though, I, I say after a few minutes, “Mike, Mike. Don’t — Don’t you know that was wrong, man?” And he looked at me and he said, “Gee, man, I don't know. It was just one of them things.” And he rolled over a few minutes later. I could tell he was asleep.
[40:33]Ron Ridenhour: The Army’s position has been that it was an aberration, not an operation, that it was not reflective of U.S. policy in Vietnam. And that it was one guy who went nuts. Well, the evidence suggests very strongly that it was far more than one guy who went nuts.
Walter Shaub: This podcast is sponsored by the Project On Government Oversight, a nonpartisan, independent government watchdog.
Randy Fertel: What you have to understand about the government is that the motherfuckers lie. That’s the first thing. They lie. About the big things. About just about any goddamn thing you can think of when it serves their purpose. Don’t get me wrong, you find honest people in the strangest places, so you never stop looking. But skepticism of a broad and deep range of government claims is a good thing.
Mandy Smithberger: I think it’s really important to keep in mind the lesson of the Iraq war and how we were lied to about not only the justification, the idea that — that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but also lies put forward that Saddam Hussein had links to Osama bin Laden. And what we saw through that was a real corruption of the intelligence process, where you had people cherry-picking information that they wanted to have in place to be able to get to an end that they wanted. In this case, it was a war with Iraq. And I think, unfortunately, we don’t always have the kind of skepticism that we need to have from assertions from senior officials about what information that they have, that they aren’t candid about, where there are questions about the veracity of their information, that there aren’t enough questions about whether, you know, we even have enough people in that country to be getting reliable information about what’s happening on the ground. I think at the end of the day, the problem is that when the Pentagon has the largest budget, that they have the ability to really call the shots. So they are really drowning out the voices of those urging diplomacy, those urging for alternative paths to be able to make us safe.
Virginia Heffernan: Hello, and welcome back to The Continuous Action. I’m Virginia Heffernan, and this is Episode Two. Today, we’re talking about truth-tellers. We’re talking about liars. We’re talking about exaggerations. And we’re talking about war. What is it good for?
Walter Shaub: And I’m Walt Shaub. Virginia and I are gonna talk about what should be done with the people who lied to send us to war, the people who lied to keep us at war. We’re gonna talk about the truth-tellers engaged in the struggle with them. And we’re gonna talk about protecting the truth-tellers.
Virginia Heffernan: Walt, that opening, that poem just got us an explicit-language label slapped on this episode. What did we just hear?
Walter Shaub: Well, that was a poem by the late Ron Ridenhour, as read by his friend Randy Fertel. Ron was the whistleblower who exposed the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the language matches the experience of being a whistleblower going up against a superpower’s army. Ron’s no longer with us, but we’re gonna hear from him later in the episode. The second thing we heard was Mandy Smithberger, talking about the manipulation of intelligence information that sent us to war in Iraq.
Virginia Heffernan: Okay. So the war in Iraq, the yellow cake powder, the weapons of mass destruction.
Walter Shaub: Yes. The lies that launched 20 years of war. Mandy was POGO’s military expert until recently. She’s now working for a senator.
Virginia Heffernan: So the Iraq War seems like an excellent place to start. Only — it wasn’t a war. Was it?
Walter Shaub: No. Congress never declared war. In fact, Congress never declares war anymore. Too many senators and representatives want credit for war if it goes well, but they want to be able to blame the president if the public’s unhappy. What they do instead is they issue an Authorization of the Use of Military Force — the acronym’s AUMF, but it might as well be AMF. Congress has issued formal declarations in only five wars total. Technically it was 11 declarations, but only five wars. And the last one was 77 years ago.
Virginia Heffernan: So, this reminds me actually of Putin’s justification for going to war in Ukraine, the way that he justified it was that it was something shy of a war, some kind of military… What did he call it?
Walter Shaub: Yeah, I think he was calling it a “special military operation.”
Virginia Heffernan: Yes. So it’s not only do wars get started by lies, but the wars themselves are lies. Article I of the Constitution says Congress is the branch with the power to declare war, right? But Congress didn’t declare war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, or any of the other places the president has sent troops since World War II.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. I mean, it’s like Congress just rolled over and surrendered the war powers to the president. Ostensibly, an authorization of the use of military force sets some limits. But they get written very vaguely and leave so much room for interpretation that presidents are given an inch and take a mile. Fortunately, you know, we say Congress has surrendered, but individual members of Congress are at least still trying to assert some authority. In February this year, 43 members of Congress wrote to Biden. And in a letter, they warned him not to use military force in Ukraine without getting a green light from Congress. And it was a bipartisan group, too. It ranged from AOC on the one end to Paul Gosar on the other. And they cited both the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to remind him that he at least has to get one of these authorizations of the use of military force. But I don’t think any member of Congress is lining up to have a debate over whether to declare war.
Virginia Heffernan: But back to Iraq, Congress granted the president authority to use force there. And that war, as we know now, was based on lies. But so far, no one’s ever paid for those lies. When Colin Powell passed away, he was regarded as a hero. But – and I guess he did some good things — but he was also the guy that sold the war to us when he was secretary of state. I mean, it still gives me chills to remember this. Here’s what he said: “Leaving Saddam Husain in possession of weapons of mass destruction for a few more months or years is not an option, not in a post September 11th world.”
Walter Shaub: Yeah. I mean, for those of us who lived through it, or at least were adults and can remember it, the Bush administration really gave the hard sell for this war. And Colin Powell was the face of that push. But, as you say, nobody seemed to hold that against him when he passed away. And of course, you know, he lived a whole life, and there were good things to cite in his life as well. But it’s — it’s really a symbol of how there just are no consequences when they lie us into war. And that war led to the killing of Iraqi civilians. We talk about the relatively small number of American soldiers who died. And each one of those is a tragic loss. We don’t hear are much about the number of civilians who died. And the estimates are around 200,000 people, civilians, as near as anyone can tell.
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, and after all these years, no one has been held accountable for the lies.
Walter Shaub: And that’s kind of a good place to go to our first interview. We have sort of a folk hero in some circles. It’s Ben Cohen.
Virginia Heffernan: Oh, the Ben-and-Jerry’s-ice-cream Ben Cohen.
Walter Shaub: Exactly. The very one. Ben’s been a political activist for years.
Virginia Heffernan: Oh yeah. I think of him as still kind of educating, agitating and organizing, right? Like a great sixties and seventies activist. He even spoke at an anti-war rally in 2002. So, not long after 9/11, he said, “This is a war based on lies.” He basically called bullshit on the idea of a war of so-called surgical strikes.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. This is my favorite line from his speech: “Many thousands of people, fathers and mothers, sons, and daughters will be killed in this war, yet there’s no imminent threat to the security of America that justifies sending our brave men and women in uniform off to die.”
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, and he was right.
Walter Shaub: He was right.
Virginia Heffernan: Let’s listen to the interview.
Ben Cohen: What’s at stake for the public is that we end up killing, murdering, bombing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, people just like us, that we have nothing against, that are trying to scrape by like we’re trying to scrape by, and somehow or other, we have bought this “surgical strike” line from the people that are making billions of dollars off these high-tech weapons that do not strike surgically. I mean, civilians are the people that are getting killed in all these wars. It’s — it’s just a lie.
And you know, what really strikes me is that when Americans were aware of what was going on, they were totally against it. And so the Pentagon heard that loud and clear and they said, “Okay, no more war reporting. We are no longer going to allow the American people to see what we are doing to people in other countries in the name of the American people and with the American people’s money. And that is gonna allow us to continue to kill people because we’re not gonna show ‘em the violence. We’re not gonna show ‘em the body parts. We’re not gonna show ‘em the blood. And what’s more, what we are gonna show ‘em is video games. It’s just a game. We’re gonna show ‘em, you know, animated things going through windows and blowing up things. We’re not gonna see any blood. We’re not gonna see any body parts. We’re not gonna see the crying mothers and fathers when they go to pick up the remains of their kids.”
It’s — I don’t understand how it’s legal to refuse to allow the American people to see what our government is doing with our money.
Virginia Heffernan: Well, there’s a prior violation in these wars, every war since 1945. And it’s a violation of the Constitution in that Congress, which bears this sole responsibility for declaring wars, never — has not declared a war in years. So all these wars have not had the buy-in from our representatives.
Ben Cohen: Yeah. The way the Constitution was set up was that war is going to be an extreme, unusual event. And, in order to pull that off, you need not only the executive branch, but you need the legislative branch as well. And the legislative branch, you know, is just — They’re not focused on the Constitution. They’re not focused on what’s good for the country. They’re focused on getting re-elected. And they’ve decided that the easiest way for them to get re-elected is just to bow out, to not accept their responsibility, because then nobody can say, “Well, you did the right thing or the wrong thing.” Nobody can say, “You did the wrong thing.” Cause they didn’t do anything. And that’s the wrong thing.
Virginia Heffernan: This is, you know, you talked about surgical strikes in 2002 and there have been lots of drone strikes since then that really cost us nothing in terms of lives. You know, we don’t have to — they don’t — they’re no risk. They’re, as you say, video games.
Ben Cohen: No, no risk to U.S. citizens.
Virginia Heffernan: Yeah, exactly.
Ben Cohen: Big risk to people that are going to a wedding or a funeral, or a family that’s traveling somewhere in their car. They get blown up.
Walter Shaub: And of course you don’t hear about that. They don’t tell you about the civilians who die or the civilians who are going to die when they’re sending us to war by telling us about weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist.
Ben Cohen: I don’t understand why it’s legal for government officials to lie us into war. I mean, you know, that is the norm: that we get lied into war. We don’t know that it’s a lie at the time that they’re lying us into war, but usually what happens is that 10 or 20 years later, it comes out that, “Oh, well, that war — we were lied into it.”
And, and the people who lied us into it are never prosecuted. I don’t get it. Why isn’t it illegal for elected officials to lie? It should be. If we did make it illegal for public officials to lie to the people who elected them, we wouldn’t get into all these wars. I mean, for businesses, you get sued if you lie. There’s truth in advertising laws. You’re not allowed to say false things. I don’t understand why we can’t make the same law for public officials: You’re not allowed to say false things. You’re not allowed to lie to the people. You’re not allowed to lie to those citizens of the United States. I mean, that should be kind of basic. I mean, why can’t that be part of the oath of office: “I swear I’m not gonna lie to the American people.”
Virginia Heffernan: You know, one thing that happened during the Trump administration is I learned about a whole range of lies available to the very rich and politicians. I think Hope Hicks at some point had lied for the president, and her defense was, “It’s okay to lie. There’s nothing against the law about lying to the media.”
If, as you point out, we’re not getting buy-in of the people on any war, basically the war is being sold to us. So sales lies are potentially okay, what Trump’s family calls “puffery.” Exaggerating, you know, exaggerating how full the buildings are that he’s trying to sell. And then Michael Cohen describing, “You lie down your assets when you’re, when it comes time to pay taxes and you lie them up when time comes to collateralize a loan.”
So certain — you know, the ruling class has gotten in the habit of these lies that are kind of structurally built into the way power operates, and are not, you know, easily legislated.
Ben Cohen: Yes. The ruling class is into lying.
Virginia Heffernan: So what do you, what would a possible remedy be? Because, you know, it’s —
Ben Cohen: Pass a law. Make it illegal for public officials to lie. What’s so hard about that? I don’t get it.
Virginia Heffernan: Well, at least lying — I mean, is it a lie to say, “I’ll be the best Congressman this district has ever known?” Is it a lie to say—
Ben Cohen: That, that that’s not a, well, that’s not a provable lie.
Virginia Heffernan: Right.
Ben Cohen: I mean —
Virginia Heffernan: Is it like, “There’s yellow cake here, and it’s not there.” That’s a lie.
Ben Cohen: Right. Now that’s a lie.
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, it would be tough. It’s one of those — it’s a tough issue. And yet it has broken faith, you know, at least since Watergate, with the American people. And I think it, you know, it frays democracy. You can’t feel as though you’re, you know, you can’t trust a democracy to work when you’re being lied to. It’s just like cognitive damage.
Ben Cohen: That’s exactly right.
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, Ben has a good point. Well, but I still worry about who decides who’s lying. I mean, if we, you know, both political sides say the other side is lying kind of all the time. I mean, if Bill Barr were in charge of deciding lies from truth, he might prosecute Adam Schiff, but, say, let Donald Trump off the hook. And at the same time, Ben is right. There’s been no accountability. And that means no deterrence for future lies.
Walter Shaub: I think that’s the core concept here, is that Americans are frustrated that there are never consequences for these lies. One option instead is to focus on exposing them. And we’ve got a great guest to explore that a little bit. We’ve got the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko. Now, even though the U.S. has left Afghanistan, the office is continuing its work. And “inspector general” is a government watchdog that works within the government. And usually, they’re embedded in an agency and investigate or audit activities going on at that agency.
In the case of Afghanistan, they created a special inspector general who’s not part of any agency. SIGAR is the acronym, special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, is its own standalone agency. It oversees the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. And although it wasn’t specifically focused on war, there was a lot of area of overlap. Because in order to assess the reconstruction, they had to assess what areas the government had control over, which is inextricably tied to war. What we’re gonna hear from John Sopko is that the government had all kinds of creative ways to throw obstacles in the way. And some of the problem is systemic. You have your nefarious lies, but you also, as Sopko explains, have a system that pushes for exaggerations that alter perceptions of reality and what’s going on on the ground.
Walter Shaub: So let’s give a listen to what John Sopko has to say.
Virginia Heffernan: Excellent.
Walter Shaub: In one 2020 hearing on Afghanistan, you told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, quote, “We’ve created an incentive to almost require people to lie.” Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you meant by that?
John Sopko: Sure. Happy to do that. First of all, I think, I think you have to view the context for that question and answer I had with the House Foreign Relations Committee. I’m talking about reconstruction, which is the rebuilding and the development of Afghanistan. I wasn’t looking at war, war fighting, or anything outside of Afghanistan. And you know, over the years — and I’ve been doing it now for 10 years — my staff and I have just noticed this sort of constant “happy talk,” which, you know, we kept raising concerns about because what we were finding wasn’t as happy as a lot of the senior executives and cabinet officers, and even sometimes the presidents, both presidents, or three presidents that I’ve worked under, have been talking about.
And part of the reason is I don’t think people intentionally decided to lie to the American people to Congress or to IGs. But it’s just a system we’ve set up, and it almost encourages people to exaggerate. And by “this system,” I mean a system of appropriations where you have to justify your budget, which means you have to justify success to Congress. So there’s an incentive to do that.
And then the people who were working in Afghanistan were there usually on very short to tours of duty, whether they’re with aid or state or DOD or whatever, and DOD maybe was the worst, because some of those people were only there for six months at a time. And they had to justify their existence, had to justify what they did. And I think it’s almost human nature that you want to say positive things. Unfortunately, these positive things tended to spin out of control.
Now, there may have been some sinister motives. I can’t say. I never — I didn’t get into the minds of these federal officials. If you’re a congressman or congresswoman and trying to do the right thing, you are being told so many stories that there’s no basis in fact for a lot of them. So how do you make a smart decision, if you can even get the information? And I know one of the things you’re concerned about, and we raised also, was this over-classification. And that’s another way to do it.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. I’d love to hear about the over-classification, because that’s a real concern. And I think I saw they sort of tried to pull the legs out from under you by classifying information that you had previously released, not retroactively, but going forward so that you couldn’t continue releasing that kind of information.
John Sopko: Oh, oh, oh, absolutely. That was the most absurd situation. And the unfortunate thing is it continues to today. So up to 2017, we were every quarter reporting on a number of things with the Afghan government which were important for the American taxpayer and Congress to know about how successful we were. So these were indicators of success or failure. So, you know, the most, the classic one was the number of districts in Afghanistan, or provinces, that were under control of the Afghan government.
So then all of a sudden in 2017, they said, “Well, all that information is now classified.” I said, “Why?” And then they started classifying everything else, everything the average American or the average congressman or congresswoman would want to know about success and failure. So the amount of casualties that the Afghans were incurring, all of the metrics for measuring success on how effective the military were, those all became classified.
And we later pushed that issue. That’s one issue we pushed; we pushed. And there were some congressmen who were saying, “This doesn’t make sense, because you’ve been reporting this stuff in the clear, in the open for us to understand for years. Why all of a sudden?” And we forced, we and Congress, forced the department of defense, in this case, to admit the reason they’ve stopped printing the information (or publicly printing it, publishing it), was President Ghani and his staff asked us to, because it was embarrassing to the Afghans.
So in essence, they admitted they were losing, everything was going downhill. But so from 2017, 2018 on, we knew what was going on, the Taliban knew what was going on, the Afghan government knew how bad things were, but the American taxpayer knew nothing. And those members of Congress who wanted to talk about it were thwarted from discussing it because it was classified. They had to go and look at our classified annexes to our quarterly reports. You know, you have to go into a super-secret room. You know, the cone of silence comes down. You have to go in there. Sometimes your staff can’t even come with you.
So that information was all kept secret. And it’s even kept secret now. I have written letters to the secretary of defense saying, “Here’s the letter that was sent from Ghani’s team to, I think at that time it was General Nicholson, who was our supreme commander, saying, ‘Please don't divulge this stuff,’ in essence because it’s embarrassing.”
Well, okay. There is no Afghan government now to embarrass; they’re gone. I don’t know if anybody in the Pentagon has noticed that. There is no Afghan government to embarrass. So why don’t you reveal the information now? Why don’t you tell the American people what you knew about how bad this situation was, how bad the Afghans were in being trained — and more importantly in being able to sustain their military and their government? And this is the sad thing.
And Walter, this is something I think you’ll appreciate, your audience will. And I’ve been here now since 1982, I worked for Sam Nunn, famous Georgia senator, one of the leaders on national security for years. I worked with him for 15 years. And the one thing he taught me is, you know, the government doesn’t classify good news. Okay? And if by mistake it does, it leaks it.
So, you know, we knew this wasn’t good news. But you know, maybe if the American people had seen in 2017 and 18, how bad it was, maybe we wouldn’t have continued this way. Maybe we would’ve had a more gradual end to this thing because the American people in Congress would’ve said, “Hey, we’ve gotta slow this down. We gotta stop what we’re doing. We gotta change what we’re doing.” Because it wasn’t working.
And that’s the sad thing: Over-classification and this over exaggeration of success, unfortunately, I think led to people getting killed. And it definitely led to millions of dollars being wasted. We could have pulled the plug earlier, but that’s a decision for the policy makers, not me.
Walter Shaub: You know, what really strikes me as making this such a powerful example of why over-classification is so sinister is — in this case, the enemy had the information. You weren’t hiding the information from a hostile power. And so the only person you’re hiding it from is the American citizen.
John Sopko: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you’re making it very difficult for Congress to do anything, because they can’t find the information unless they physically have to walk over and ask for a document, go in there, and then once have information, what do they do with it? They can’t go on the House floor and discuss it. They can’t even discuss it with their staff outside the building.
And what’s even worse — they used a new class, and I even have to … this is a new term for me. I know about the classification levels, but this is one that they call, “controlled unclassified information.” What does that mean? Now, you know, they have these titles: “Official Use Only”, you know, OUO, “Sensitive But Unclassified,” now they created this new one.
You can’t use the normal, official classifications to hide failure. You can’t use it to hide people being embarrassed. You know, there’s been case law on that. You can’t do it. So they create these other things. They’re not classifications. As I tell my staff, they’re more a state of mind. They have nothing to do with classification. They have nothing to do with national security. They have to do with somebody, some contractor, some pet project, embarrassing some people. And that is a sad state of affairs.
I’ll tell you a classic example. And this is where again, the American people didn’t know what was going on. The USAID did an excellent job, actually, hired some excellent firms to come in and review every one of the Afghan ministries, their government agencies, to determine whether those agencies could actually handle U.S. money. And this was required by the appropriators, the Senate and House appropriators put that language into the bill because they didn’t trust money going to these agencies, these Afghan agencies.
So they issued all these reports. We called them the “ministerial assessment reports.” We found out about them. And then USAID started putting these “Sensitive But Unclassified,” “Official Use Only,” all these other little stickers on it, trying to thwart us from using the information in our reports. And even prevented it from going to Congress. They stamped these things. And I think I made some of the congressmen nervous about how to handle this thing. And basically I had to explain to some of these committees that these aren’t classifications. These are made up things. And you can take a look at a hearing I had before the House Oversight Committee where — I mean, this information was critically important. We were sending U.S. taxpayer dollars to ministries that USAID had already assessed as being totally corrupt and totally incompetent.
But that information, USAID was saying, “Oh, well, we can’t reveal it to anybody.” Well, because it was embarrassing. That’s what it boiled down to. It was embarrassing that USAID, despite what Congress wanted, was sending, still sending money to corrupt and totally incompetent agencies. And you know, the other thing is, that information would’ve been useful to the good Afghan government officials to try to reform their agencies. But they weren’t even revealing it to the other Afghan ministries about how incompetent these ministries were. So it’s just sad, in a way, how screwed up this whole thing was just to protect people’s pet projects.
Walter Shaub: Can you tell us a little bit about how important whistleblowers are, and what your thoughts are on protecting their identities?
John Sopko: I’m glad you asked that question, and I think that is such an important issue. And again, I praise you and your fellow comrades at POGO for focusing on the whistleblower issue. For too long a time, many IGs did not protect whistleblowers. And I remember even when I worked on Congress, where we actually identified IGs who went after whistleblowers, when I was working for John Dingle, that they basically became the hitmen for corrupt administration officials to go after whistleblowers. And that’s the worst thing.
Whistleblowers are, you know, the bread and butter of effective control over theft, misuse, and misconduct in the government. They are the number one tool we have, because they know best of what’s going on. And they risk, in many times not only their jobs, but their lives to go forward and actually try to fix a problem. And so you’ve got to protect these people. You’ve got to respect these people. And we firmly believe in that.
And we made — a lot of our cases were due to whistleblowers. And if you go on our website, you know, we have two big red buttons. One is the hotline. Hit that button, and you can tell us all the information you want. And the second one is whistleblower protection. Hit that button, and it tells you what our view is and what the U.S. government’s view is, and IGs now — what IGs need to do to protect whistleblowers and what their rights are.
I can’t say much more other than if there weren’t whistleblowers, the government would be ... you think the government’s bad now, it would be a hundred times, a thousand times worse. And we still need to do better. There are some agencies and some contractors, contracting areas that are not protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Fortunately for us, it, you know, all our areas we were, but it’s so important. So we gotta protect whistleblowers. That’s where the only future for improvement of the government, is protecting whistleblowers.
Virginia Heffernan: Oh my God. I mean, it must have been supremely frustrating for an inspector general to have government officials trying to prevent him from getting to the truth and trying to stop him from doing his job.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. You can hear the frustration in his voice. You can also hear resilience. And I think that is the hallmark of good inspectors general, is that they are dedicated to this. Their job is combating this obfuscation and trying to get at a truth of the matter, and whistleblowers are so critically important to their work, as he emphasized.
And speaking of whistleblowers, we’re now gonna go to Ron Ridenhour’s last talk. This was recorded years ago. It was the last public appearance he made. Ron Ridenhour was the whistleblower who exposed the My Lai massacre during Vietnam. For the sake of our listeners. I’m not gonna go into detail on what actually happened in My Lai. It was absolutely horrific. The things they did to people before they killed them were unspeakable. And they wound up killing about 500 civilians.
What we’re gonna open with is a piece where Ron Ridenhour, who was not there at My Lai, but who got wind of it and on his own, as a soldier, started investigating by asking questions of anyone he could find who had been there. And he became a journalist when he left the military. And you could see those journalistic skills because he records the time and the dates and the details of every piece of information he’s able to gather. And he ultimately sends it in a letter to the president. He ultimately exposes it to the media, and it launched an investigation. Unfortunately, it also launched a coverup, and the military worked really hard to make it sound like it was just one crazy person. They lied. They covered it up. That may have been the inspiration for the poem we heard at the beginning of this episode.
But I think the other thing that’s really important when you listen to Ron Ridenhour’s talk is to hear how much more widespread this was, and how it actually informed some of the activities carried out by the U.S. not only in Vietnam, but in its training of allies during the Cold War and beyond, in Latin America, in Africa, and other places around the world.
So let’s give a listen to Ron Ridenhour.
Ron Ridenhour: So we sat down and went and got in the chow line and talked to some of the grunts who had just come out of the battle. Then we went over and found ourselves a bunker, crawled up on top of it and laid down. And I asked Mike, “Hey man, tell me what you guys did at Pinkville.”
And his story was basically the same as everybody else, as everybody had the same story: That they’d gone in there; they’d murdered all these people. And that Calley had been a pretty bad guy, but that the whole company was involved and that they were following orders.
After Calley lined up all the people at the ditch and shot them down, many of them were mortally wounded, but not dead. Mortally wounded people often make a lot of noise. People don’t die easily. They don’t give up life easily. So these folks in this ditch were, their limbs were flopping spasmodically and they were moaning and groaning. And I guess that ditch must have been the source of a terrible racket. Well, my friend Mike and another friend sat down to have lunch a little after 11, not far from the ditch, and as they were eating, they just couldn’t stand the noise.
So at some point during that meal, they stood up and they walked to the ditch. One went to one side and one to the other, and they walked up and down the ditch and they took all the survivors they could find, one by one, and they finished them off. Pow, you take that one. Pow, you take that one. Pow. This was, you know, I had been told by Gruver and by a couple of other guys that [Mike] Terry had done this, and I just, I had to hear it from his mouth.
And he believed that day, as he believes this day, that what he did was an act of mercy for those people in that ditch. That’s what motivated him, he said, and what he still says today — and I think he believes it. And I think that if those people had been white Mormons, as he was, he would’ve had a different reaction at the ditch. But I wasn’t there, and I don’t know.
After he tells me this story, though, I say after a few minutes, “Mike, Mike, don’t you know, that was wrong, man?” And he looked at me and he said, “Gee, man, I don’t know, it was just one of them things.” And he rolled over. A few minutes later, I could tell he was asleep.
Ron Ridenhour: The Army’s position has been that it was an aberration, not an operation; that it was not reflective of U.S. policy in Vietnam. And that it was one guy who went nuts. Well, the evidence suggests very strongly that it was far more than one guy who went nuts, that it was the whole unit.
We know that the — should I say, the men I spoke to talked about the command and control helicopters from the entire division being overhead all morning or part of the morning. We know that the task force commander was overhead. There’s no question about it, in his helicopter, he was flying around. This took four hours. If it was an aberration, any of these people could have ordered the cease-fire at any time. The cease-fire was finally issued at 11:20, roughly 11:20 a.m., when Medina went running through the village, ordering people to stop shooting. And guess what? They stopped shooting.
You know, I mean, if this was this what they claimed it had been, you would think that people wouldn’t have stopped shooting, but they did. By that time, of course, there was no one left. About four or five people who had hidden, who had been covered by the bodies of their friends and relatives, or who had hidden in houses that had been burned or had little places to hide under the floor of their houses or whatever, a few, a handful of people survived in that way, but not too many.
I think that this was not just a direct product of our policy of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, but an element of the strategy. Not to say that every American infantry unit that was in Vietnam went out and committed massacres. But that the annihilation of a village that was considered particularly intransigent was a tool in the military’s toolkit. And when somebody decided that it was appropriate to use this tool in a certain place for a certain reason, they wheeled it out, and they did.
I think that this very probably happened in a lot of villages throughout Vietnam and about the same time that it happened at My Lai. We don’t know whether or not that’s true because nobody’s ever asked the question. Nobody’s ever gone to see if it’s true.
But I would like to know very much whether or not there were other great American victories in other villages around Vietnam which fit the order of battle profile that My Lai did — the order of battle being the military’s assessment of the enemy strength. The military has had in Vietnam an order of battle for every province in every district. They thought they knew what the units were, what the enemy units were in each province, in each district. They thought they knew what, which villages were the home base of each VC unit. And I would like to know what happened to those other villages that fit the same profile as My Lai — which is to say other villages that were thought to be the home base of major VC units. We don’t know the answer to that because nobody’s ever gone and asked the question.
Why does it matter today? I think it mattered today in part because My Lai wasn’t the last time this happened. It wasn’t the last time it happened in Vietnam. It wasn’t the last time this happened in the world. If you look at Central America, for instance, there were literally hundreds of My Lai-like massacres during the decade of the eighties when we were deeply involved there. And in which the only component of those wars that was not American provided, planned for, were the bodies of the people who were pulling the triggers. Everything else was ours. It was our strategy. It was our money. It was our training. It was our supplies. It was our guns, our bullets.
And the pattern is really quite astonishing if you look at it. By 1983, the Guatemalan army was admitting that they had committed, in just the last two years, the massacres of 662 Indian villagers. In El Salvador, the Salvadoran army was adopting the same pattern of counterinsurgency.
Virginia Heffernan: I mean, this is important. He emphasizes that this was not an isolated incident. It was a strategy. It was not a bug. It was a feature. You know, sometimes since, you know, you and I didn’t live through the Vietnam protests and didn’t participate in them, it’s as if, since then, there’s just been this kind of resigned acceptance on the part of citizens.
I think it's really good to remind us of people like Ridenhour, who really took the time to dismantle military lies, Pentagon lies. The military did indeed, in this case, work hard to cover this all up. The perpetrators were given military trials and only one person, Lieutenant Calley, was sentenced to prison. And then he was released. So this is pretty much all about how the military was keeping us at war by keeping it secret.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. And in the 1980s, as Ridenhour explained in his talk, the U.S. shifted strategies. We got other people to do our dirty work, other governments. And we ran a thing called the School of the Americas, where they essentially trained dictators and their thugs how to torture people and suppress insurrections through mass violence.
Virginia Heffernan: I also think about, you know, the name Paul Manafort that came up so much during the Trump administration, his campaign manager, was cited as the leader or one of the leaders of the so-called “torturer’s lobby,” covering up, whitewashing crimes of foreign dictators who had committed human rights abuses. This is in the, in the seventies, eighties, nineties.
Walter Shaub: And this isn’t entirely all in our history. The U.S. was instrumental in supporting Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen. There’s one example of an attack that killed 70 civilians, including children. In late December, December 27th, 2021, the New York Times ran an article called “Civilian Deaths Mounted As Secret Unit Pounded ISIS.” The story goes on to talk about how, in the race to be able to show successes to the Pentagon, this secret military strike force just stopped caring about civilians. And any time they knew somebody from ISIS was in a region would just bomb the hell out of it, and the civilian casualties just started piling up.
And I couldn’t help but think about Ron Ridenhour’s explanation at the end of that talk there when I read it about how he said if they took fire from a village, they would just absolutely level it. This recent attack fighting ISIS — so this is as current as it gets for U.S. military action — and you have them just leveling areas to get at, you know, their enemy who they know is in there, without regard to civilians. And again, you have some of the systemic things that John Sopko was talking about, about how there’s this pressure to be able to, for your performance appraisal, show results. And so they report on how many ISIS fighters they killed and leave out the details of how many civilians they slaughtered in the process.
Virginia Heffernan: Well, since we’re called “the continuous action,” I think we should talk about what the public can do.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. And I think there are a few things. First of all, I think the public needs to be skeptical of reporting that they hear and particularly information that comes from the government. I also think we have to be careful not to let emotions carry us away, particularly now, as we’re seeing horrific things playing out. There’s no getting around the fact that once you make a decision to go into war, some people on your side are gonna do bad things and the government is going to try to cover it up. And so I think the public needs to be more skeptical. These days, people look back on the vote to authorize military action in Iraq, and they can’t believe how many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle supported it.
In retrospect, it looks ridiculous. But you have to understand that at that time, there was so much momentum for it and such a sales pitch going on, and there was too little skepticism. And it wasn’t for lack of people pointing it out. You had Ben Cohen there on a podium, calling it out as a lie, but our policymakers ignored it. And so I think we need more skepticism on the part of Congress.
Virginia Heffernan: More skepticism, more pressure, more, you know, I love that these people are formally called “watchdogs.” That’s one of my favorite things. Maybe we just all need a little more canine in us when it comes to this stuff.
Walter Shaub: Yeah. I think we need more support for inspectors general, like John Sopko. And I think we need to hold accountable inspectors general who pull their punches because they’re afraid of a president or afraid of an agency head. We need to have both support for them and accountability, but we definitely need these watchdogs.
Virginia Heffernan: The other name that I love as a formal name is “whistleblower.” So we have watchdogs and whistleblowers. Tell me about the need we kept hearing about in the last four years to strengthen whistleblower protections.
Walter Shaub: I think our country needs to do a lot more for whistleblowers. And this is something POGO has been extremely active in. You know, a lot of federal employees, if they blow the whistle and then they get fired, they can go to an office called the Office of Special Counsel, or they can appeal to a board called the Merit Systems Protection Board and they can get reinstated. If they lose, though, they only get a limited appeal with the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, and they don’t get to file a lawsuit seeking a trial before a district court and get heard by a jury of their peers. They simply lack that right, which is something almost every other kind of whistleblower has, which is the right to demand a jury trial before a federal district court.
And there’s other gaps. We think about Ron Ridenhour, who was a soldier at the time he exposed the My Lai massacre, but soldiers, and really all uniform military personnel, have limited rights. Unlike civilian employees, they can’t go to the Office of Special Counsel or appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board. They have to use the military justice system. And that system requires a whistleblower to prove they were fired because of retaliation. Almost everywhere else in the government, the agency bears the burden of proving that it had a legitimate reason to fire or discipline an employee that was unrelated to whistleblowing. So the burdens of proof are on their head when it comes to the military.
Another group that’s particularly vulnerable is intelligence officials. There’s laws on the books to protect them, but there’s no independent government office that can enforce those protections. So the only one who can stop whistleblower retaliation is the very system that let it happen in the first place, the agencies that are going after them.
Some government contractors are unprotected. And that’s a huge problem because the government’s using contractors for more and more things, especially much of the additional federal spending we’ve seen in the last few years in response to the pandemic and dramatic increases in infrastructure spending. Sometimes these employees of government contractors carrying out the activities that are being funded are in the best position to spot wrongdoing, but they risk their jobs if they do anything about it.
And so all of this needs to change. And I think we can end on a positive note, in that there’s been some real efforts to change, and some members of Congress are really championing this. The House has considered a number of bills that would add new protections and address these issues and others. One was the Whistleblower Protection Improvement of 2021. They merged that with another bill called Protecting Our Democracy Act and it passed the House just in December, 2021. Unfortunately, the Senate hasn’t acted on it. Now POGO and other groups are working really hard to win over lawmakers and push whistleblower protection legislation.
There’s even been some successes. You know, the current fiscal year, fiscal year 2022, started in October, and Congress only finally passed a budget in March, 2022, almost six months later. But when they did, it included some provisions that made technical improvements that improved the whistleblower process for intelligence officials a little bit. Now that’s not everything we’re after, but it is a sign that there are some in Congress who are responsive to the needs.
So I think the big call to action I would have in this episode is that the public needs to be supportive of whistleblowers and needs to be demanding that Congress do more to protect whistleblowers. And POGO and other groups are gonna be in that fight for as long as it takes.
Virginia Heffernan: Thanks so much for doing this with me, Walt. I’m looking forward to the next episode of The Continuous Action, episode three. It’s gonna be on government surveillance. The Continuous Action is hosted by me, Virginia Heffernan, and Walter Shaub. The show is produced by Myron Kaplan with help from Bubba Bach.
Walter M. Shaub, Jr. - Co-Host
Virginia Heffernan - Co-Host
Randy Fertel - Guest Speaker
Mandy Smithberger - Guest Speaker
Ben Cohen - Guest Speaker
John Sopko - Guest Speaker
Ron Ridenhour - Featuring