Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Case of Mary McCarthy and the Limits of Political Opposition

Mary McCarthy, a CIA officer who served in the Clinton White House, recently was fired within days of her planned retirement for surreptitiously divulging classified information to the press. Speaking on condition of anonymity, law enforcement officers have linked her to press reports on the existence of a covert prison system for holding terrorist suspects, leaks that the administration says have done irreparable damage to U.S. foreign policy. Ms. McCarthy, whose lawyer denies that she leaked any classified information, is contesting her release from the CIA, which carries with it the loss of a retirement pension.

Several organizations and individuals have rushed to Ms. McCarthy's defense arguing that she engaged in an act of conscience against Bush administration policies that she found morally repugnant. Others have argued that she is a “whistle blower,” laying bare the illegal acts of the government in its prosecution of the war on terror. Both of these claims fail to hold up under scrutiny.

Whistle blowers are those who reveal the illegal acts of government. The covert prison system (assuming this is the information that she divulged) is not a violation of U.S. law. Therefore, her opposition is not based on the legality of the CIA operation, but rather on her personal opposition to it. Stated bluntly, she engaged in a transparent effort to undermine U.S. foreign policy.

The defense that she did so based on her moral opposition to the prison system flies in the face of other moral responsibilities that Ms. McCarthy has. In addition to her oath not to divulge classified information, Ms. McCarthy has violated the public trust. CIA officers are not elected. In a democracy that means they do not have the right to make policy. They are government employees hired for their professional competence and expected to carry out their responsibilities in a politically neutral manner. If Ms. McCarthy disagrees with policy, then she has the moral responsibility to resign in protest. Instead, she chose to provide information to the press under the table with the intent of undermining policy she opposed. Her subsequent attempts to save her CIA pension lay bare the extent to which she is willing to sacrifice for the sake of her values. All of this suggests that she was moved by crude political opposition to a democratically elected administration, not moral impulse. If the charges against her are true, Ms. McCarthy has used her position of access to classified information in the CIA to further the partisan priorities and interests of those not elected to office. Further, she has done so by breaking her oath to protect classified information, and she has violated (shall I dare say it?) the sacred public trust granted her. And that is morally repugnant.

What is even more troubling however is that some are willing to defend Ms. McCarthy's supposed right to interject herself into the policy process by divulging classified information. Their eagerness to do so raises the question of just how far these same groups will go to impose their private policy preferences by undemocratic means. Democrats, Republicans, and independents are justly outraged.

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