CIA Intelink Blogger Fired

Dana Priest reports that a government contractor who blogged on the CIA’s Top Secret Intelink has been fired.

Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it. Only people with top-secret security clearances could read her musings, which were posted on Intelink, the intelligence community’s classified intranet. Writing as Covert Communications, CC for short, she opined in her online journal on such national security conundrums as stagflation, the war of ideas in the Middle East and — in her most popular post — bad food in the CIA cafeteria. But the hundreds of blog readers who responded to her irreverent entries with titles such as “Morale Equals Food” won’t be joining her ever again.

On July 13, after she posted her views on torture and the Geneva Conventions, her blog was taken down and her security badge was revoked. On Monday, Axsmith was terminated by her employer, BAE Systems, which was helping the CIA test software.

As a traveler in the classified blogosphere, Axsmith was not alone. Hundreds of blog posts appear on Intelink. The CIA says blogs and other electronic tools are used by people working on the same issue to exchange information and ideas. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on Axsmith’s case but said the policy on blogs is that “postings should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the site, and that managers should be informed of online projects that use government resources. CIA expects contractors to do the work they are paid to do.”

Certainly, postings on cafeteria food don’t meet that test. And Axsmith was apparently there as a software tester, not an analyst.

The implication of Priest’s piece is that she was fired for airing controversial views on interrogation policy. There’s no evidence of that, however. The closest we get is this:

She said BAE officials told her that the blog implied a specific knowledge of interrogations and that it worried “the seventh floor” at CIA, where the offices of the director and his management team are.

My guess is that her post on waterboarding worried the leadership because a software tester shouldn’t have access to classified interrogation reports. Even though she presumably had a Top Secret clearance, it’s unlikely she had a need to know that sort of information.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the post was flagged for that reason and then her supervisors started wondering “What the hell is she doing posting on a blog, anyway?” Still, it seems unreasonable to fire her for this unless she had other performance issues.

UPDATE: Michael Tanji thinks this could spell doom for Intelink blogging at the CIA.

The down-side of course is that the agency is likely to do what any agency in similar circumstances would do: drop the hammer on blogging. They won’t do away with it, but watch out for all sorts of new policies, increased monitoring, and smack-downs for minor infractions. Attitudes about blogging will cool especially with the old-school who will stand by and cluck-cluck about how they just knew this new-fangled nonsense would lead to no good. Those who were making the most of the new medium will sense this unspoken but real pressure to focus on “real” production and traditional communications.

Quite possibly, given how bureaucracies function. It’d be a shame, too. The idea behind Intelink is genius. But if it devolves into people who shouldn’t even be posting on the damned thing bitching about the cafeteria food, it becomes a time waster.

FILED UNDER: General, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    I was a regular reader of CC’s blog on Intelink. I’m very sad of this development and she will be missed by those of us that followed her witty and unique style.

  2. Dan says:

    Such a tragedy. Now the taxpayers who ultimately fund certain BAE projects, like ones she worked on, simply won’t be able to subsidize her blogging activity. I can’t tell you how heart broken I am, too much so to even express my real outrage.

    Um, I also wonder how much of what this woman may or may not have seen on Intelink has made it into Priest’s columns in the past … guess, we’ll never know. Priest could keep that a secret, yet Axsmith is still opening her mouth about things she saw only because of a security clearance.

    Yes, so sad to see her go, for sure. Who knows what she’ll be saying next based upon what she may have seen while with BAE.

  3. My guess is that her post on waterboarding worried the leadership because a software tester shouldn�t have access to classified interrogation reports. Even though she presumably had a Top Secret clearance, it�s unlikely she had a need to know that sort of information.

    It wouldn�t surprise me if the post was flagged for that reason and then her supervisors started wondering �What the hell is she doing posting on a blog, anyway?� Still, it seems unreasonable to fire her for this unless she had other performance issues.

    And it’s real damned unlikely that everyone who could read Intelink had need-to-know. You missed the cricual line in the article IMAO. This is WaPo quoting her blog:

    “CC had the sad occasion to read interrogation transcripts in an assignment that should not be made public.”

    She’s saying straight out that she read interrogation transcripts, which are certainly going to be TS-codeword, and for which it’s a little hard to see how she, a software tester, could possibly have NTK.

    Criminal prosecution for misuing government resources? No, Intelink and such always have some side-channel stuff going on.

    Pull her clearance? You damn betcha.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Charlie – read further down. “She said she did read some interrogation-related reports while performing her job as a trainer in one counterterrorism office.” Okay, sounds like she was given NTK to do some training for NCTC.

  5. Stevely says:

    “Do you have a charge number for that?”

  6. Personally, I’d rather the CIA spent its time and our money protecting America than trying to police blog entries and determine if they are ok, no matter how clever or witty they may be. Her judgment was extremely poor given the environment she was working in and she’s paid for it with her job. Having worked in that environment for 20 years, from entry level through middle mangement, I have no problem with that.

  7. John says:

    She was stupid…plain and simple. That she even got the post to write an article is an amazing exercise in building a mountain out of a molehill. I’ve attended several security briefings for clearances, you are not supposed to divulge NTK to people who don’t have a NTK, even if they have TS. Like, duh. Anybody with 1/2 a brain would realize that intel people take this sort of thing damn seriously. It’s like the TSA people telling you not to joke about having a bomb…that actually means, don’t joke about having a bomb!!! It doesn’t take paranoia out of Gilliam’s Brazil to wonder if they actually have such a blogspace exactly to ferret out people who don’t “get it”. I’d be VERY careful what I posted on such a blog.

  8. Neo says:

    The problem, that probably got her fired, is the same problem that afflicts corporate America as well. Everything that is produced within a company is assumed to be true, especially if the company gets sued on a related topic.

    Ms. Axsmith’s intent was probably pure, but the worst place to be in corporate America is sending memos or having a corporate blog on a topic for which you are “out of the loop.”
    If you happen to inadvertently stumble upon a truth or a false, this puts the company in the position of being responsible for your analysis, and since you are “out of the loop,” it’s something that they (those in the loop) don’t know about. Now, if they get sued, the corporation is assumed to have known this, and this could seriously affect their position in the suit.

    I can only assume that the CIA and other governmental organizations have the same problems, perhaps worse.

  9. Seav7 says:

    Ax Smith, is that like lock smith or what?

    intelink is old and it makes sense it is going to be shut down. The ‘new software’-system being offered to NSA/DIA as the CIA analyst move to NSA under Plame’s old boss- that allows real time intelligence shared amongst operations officers in the field and the Directorate will make it obsolete. Of course access may be an issue because you just have to be Plame in Iraq and you know it all………..

    How many people have top secret security clearance?

  10. brian says:

    “I thought it would be okay” to write about the Geneva Conventions, she said, “because it’s the policy.”

    As we all know, it is not the policy. The CIA has been given carte blanche. As CIA director General Hayden put it when he was approved for the post by the Republicans and Democrats:

    GEN. HAYDEN: The Army Field Manual, as the Detainee Treatment Act clearly points out, specifically applies to prisoners under the effective control of the Department of Defense.

    SEN. LEVIN: And therefore you�re — the CIA you do not believe is bound by that language.

    GEN. HAYDEN: Again, the legislation does not explicitly or implicitly, I believe, bind anyone beyond the Department of Defense, Senator.

    One government, two or more agencies. One can torture — the other can’t. One can pull the wings off flies (“boys will be boys”), but the other cannot (“sugar and spice, everything nice,” but you can shoot them in the face, or in the back or from 50,000 feet too, for that matter.)

    Only the naïve would believe that the military follows its own rules. From private to general (in practice and in toleration), torture, rape, and killings go on.

    But in general, it is done on the battlefield. Once the enemy is captured and turned over to private contractors and CIA interrogators, the military wants to wash its hands.

    Deniability is the answer here as throughout the government. If they can’t cover it up and are caught, there will be a trial for the underlings.

    It is lonely at the bottom.

  11. PG says:

    I doubt that Axsmith could have been so easily dismissed from her job if she had been an actual government employee. As a contractor, however, she has no First Amendment protections from her employer’s whim.

  12. Michael says:

    Thanks for the link/mention, but to be clear, I think the negative impact will be on CIA blogging not Intelink proper. They have no control over the latter, but they can make it very difficult for their employees (and contractors) to do the former.