Time to Come Out of the Shadows

December, 2013

Berlin -- A few days ago I lunched in Berlin with several Americans who have long lived in this city. Forty years ago, some of them were under illegal surveillance by U.S. military intelligence. I briefly described the circumstances in a post last summer; since that time, Ann Wertheimer (assisted by several of her colleagues) has written a documented account of the surveillance, the whistleblowers who revealed it, and the successful court case that followed.

This effort has brought many fascinating facts to light and raises even more questions. Among the remaining unknowns is the identity of the whistleblower within U.S. military intelligence who contacted Senator Lowell Weicker about the illegal spying on Americans in Berlin.

Last month I talked to Bill Wickens, whom the senator dispatched to Germany in 1973, about his clandestine meeting with the whistleblower to gather evidence. He said the meeting did not take place in Berlin, but many miles outside of Bremen, in a car; the two used code names (the whistleblower's was Mr. "John Adams"). The whistleblower was an Army officer but Wickens said he destroyed all papers with his true identity, as the officer wanted absolute confidentiality.

We don't know if the Army officer ever learned what happened to the documents he provided. The papers themselves were first delivered into Senator Weicker's possession at his Virginia home. The day the senator was to take them to the Senate, according to Wickens, he accidently left them atop his car and they started to blow off as he crossed Memorial Bridge. The senator stopped and ran after them, but only after some had been run over by a truck, which left tire tracks on many of the papers.

Happily, the Army whistleblower's actions eventually led to an important settlement in 1980 in which the U.S. government agreed to limit its surveillance of Americans to instances where illegal activities are suspected. This raises the obvious question, in this day and age, of just when this agreement was overturned, or whether it should still be in effect.

Like the Americans in Berlin who stood up for their rights and were vindicated, the unknown military intelligence officer should be recognized. He is the rare -- perhaps unique -- example of a national security whistleblower who effected major change without breaking any laws. Does he even know the consequences of his actions? If he is still alive, it is long since time for him to come out of the shadows and be honored for what he did in the cause of protecting Americans' civil liberties. (I would welcome anyone with further information about this case to contact me, confidentiality assured if requested.)

As to the lunch group that met a few days ago, were we under surveillance? It seems so, as surveillance is now ubiquitous and threatens our freedoms under the Bill of Rights. People in Berlin are particularly sensitive to surveillance excesses. It's time to look back to the 1980 settlement as a guide to what is allowed and what isn't.