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White House Keeps Secrets as CIA Agent Goes to Prison

Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- When he receives an expected sentence of 30 months in federal prison later this week, John Kiriakou will pay the price for a catastrophic error in judgment. But he shouldn’t suffer alone: the Barack Obama administration, too, needs to do a little penance if it hopes to live up to the president’s famous promise to “usher in a new era of open government.”

Kiriakou is a former Central Intelligence Agency official who came to public notice in 2007 when he told ABC News that while he believed waterboarding could be an effective interrogation technique, he felt this method was a form of torture and it was critical to “shine some light on what was happening” in CIA interrogations.

His legal troubles started the next year, when he gave a freelance reporter the name of a fellow officer who had been involved in rendition programs -- capturing suspects and delivering them to foreign prisons. The reporter never printed the name, but it ended up in the hands of lawyers for detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Kiriakou insists that he thought the official had retired, but that’s no excuse: He violated his oath, compromising a colleague’s safety and national security.

Still, the lengthy sentence seems unjustified, and the government’s prosecution has the whiff of vendetta. After all, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wasn’t even charged after admitting he leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame in 2003.

Or compare Kiriakou’s actions against those of Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the former head of the CIA’s clandestine operations. In 2005, Rodriguez destroyed 92 videotapes of detainee interrogations because, he wrote in an e-mail, letting the public see them would be “devastating” to the agency. Both the destruction of the tapes and the scenes they documented were probably felonies. Yet the Justice Department’s two-year investigation into the case ended with a whimper, and no charges, last summer. Rodriguez, now retired, was last seen opining on the torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” for the Washington Post.

The Kiriakou saga shines yet more light on the Obama administration’s vexed relationship with transparency. There were 720 Freedom of Information Act-related complaints filed in district courts in the last two years of Obama’s first term, a 28 percent jump from the final two years of George W. Bush’s presidency. Six Americans have been indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, twice as many as in the previous 90 years. All were charged with giving secrets not to hostile powers but to journalists.

This record is all the more unsettling because of the relish with which the administration plays the double game of leaks: While officials have furtively and even openly divulged secret details on the drone war against Islamic militants when it served their purposes, the White House has stonewalled FOIA requests to release the Justice Department documents making the legal case for the program. Similarly, days after the New York Times published a front-page article on U.S.-instigated computer attacks against Iran that clearly relied on classified information from the administration, Obama had Attorney General Eric Holder open an investigation into such leaks. “The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive,” Obama said, stretching credulity.

As Kiriakou accepts his guilt, the administration might also show some contrition, taking steps to restore its reputation and help promote an informed public and congressional discussion of what is being done in our name in the fight against terrorism.

Where should it start? Well, here are a few ideas. The administration could begin by releasing the drone-war legal brief. It could also expand protections for government whistle-blowers who leak to the press if they feel their concerns are being ignored through official channels. The White House could drop claims of executive privilege over materials relating to the Justice Department’s botched “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation against Mexican gangs and kill the farcical Justice Department investigation into last summer’s leaks. Taken together, such steps just might constitute the start of a truly “open” era.

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