Saturday, July 22, 2006

C.I.A. Worker Says Message on Torture Got Her Fired

The New York Times
C.I.A. Worker Says Message on Torture Got Her Fired

WASHINGTON, July 21 — A contract employee working for the Central Intelligence Agency said she had been fired recently for posting a message on a classified computer server that said an interrogation technique used by the agency against some terror suspects amounted to torture.

The employee, Christine Axsmith, kept the “Covert Communications” blog on a top-secret computer network used by American intelligence agencies. Ms. Axsmith was fired on Monday after C.I.A. officials objected to a message that criticized the interrogation technique called “waterboarding,” a particularly harsh practice that the C.I.A. is known to have used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is widely regarded as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The episode has opened a window into the new world of classified blogging: an experimental effort being carried out in top-secret computer forums where information and ideas are shared across the intelligence community. Intelligence officials said that since last year, more than 1,000 blogs had been set up on classified intelligence servers.

Ms. Axsmith, a computer security expert with a law degree, posted the message this month, shortly after the Bush administration decided to grant some protections of the Geneva Conventions to suspected terrorists in American custody. She said that her message began, “Waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong.”

Ms. Axsmith’s firing was earlier reported on several blogs including on Thursday, and in Friday’s Washington Post.

“I wanted an in-house discussion,” Ms. Axsmith said in an interview on Thursday in her home in Washington. “Something where I would be educating people on the background of the Geneva Conventions.”

Instead, Ms. Axsmith was fired by her employer, B.A.E. Systems, which has an information technology contract with the C.I.A.

Ms. Axsmith said C.I.A. officials had confronted her and told her that the agency’s senior leadership was angry about the blog, which was housed on Intelink, the classified server maintained by the American intelligence community to aid communication among its employees.

Besides losing her job, Ms. Axsmith also lost her top-secret security clearance, which she had held since 1993 and used for previous work for the State Department and National Counterterrorism Center.

She said she feared that her career in the intelligence world was over. “It was like I was wiped out,” she said.

A spokesman for B.A.E. Systems, Bob Hastings, said privacy issues prohibited him from commenting on Ms. Axsmith’s firing. But Mr. Hastings said that company policy prohibited employees from using computers for non-official purposes.

Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that the blogs were intended to “encourage collaboration” on business issues but that postings “should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the Web site.”

The C.I.A. denies that it uses torture to extract information from prisoners, although a 2004 report by the agency’s inspector general concluded that some of its interrogation practices appeared to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In waterboarding, the interrogation technique that Ms. Axsmith criticized, a prisoner is strapped to a board and then made to feel as if he is drowning.

In March 2005, Porter J. Goss, who was then the C.I.A. director, described waterboarding as a “professional interrogation technique”; American military pilots and commandos are known to have been subjected to it during highly classified training regimes designed to prepare them to live in captivity.

The use of the practice, along with the agency’s detention of approximately three dozen “high value detainees” in secret jails, has made some C.I.A. employees uneasy and has prompted a debate within the intelligence community.

Ms. Axsmith said she believed that the “vast majority” of people working for the C.I.A. were opposed to torture.

And, she said that she believed that the classified blogs could be a critical tool to allow C.I.A. employees — who are often prohibited from discussing their work even with other agency officials — to vent frustrations.

“The blogs are a safety valve for people to discuss controversial topics,” she said. “It reduces the chances that people may leak to the press.”

In April, the C.I.A. fired Mary O. McCarthy, a longtime employee, for having unauthorized contacts with the news media.

Though stripped of her security clearance, Ms. Axsmith still maintains her public, unclassified blog: On that Web site on Friday, there were several messages supporting her, including postings from anonymous intelligence officials who said that they would miss her “Covert Communications” blog.

Ms. Axsmith acknowledges that the posting that got her fired was deliberately provocative, and she said that if she had another chance she might have toned down the language.

“I guess I’m just too much of a big mouth for that organization,” she said.