On Sept. 8, 2011, a representative of the Central Intelligence Agency sent a message to our joint work email account. We did not expect the CIA to be thrilled that we wanted to tell the story of their pre-9/11 failures, revealing names of employees working from their headquarters in the process, but we certainly did not expect to be threatened. Their email read:
First and most importantly, we strongly believe it is irresponsible and a potential violation of federal criminal law to print the names of two reported undercover CIA officers whom you claim have been involved in the hunt against al Qa’ida.
Can you please make me aware what federal criminal law the CIA believes we ourselves — the journalists — would be violating by releasing these two names?
The answer came back:
The Intelligence Identities Protection Act.
* * *
We, the authors of this article, were 20 years old on the day of Sept. 11, 2001, an age that tends to define. Like-minded, at the time we were pursuing bachelor’s degrees in film at Columbia College in Chicago. Nearly 10 years later, in August 2011, two news articles attributed to our investigation came out in online articles by Philip Shenon in the Daily Beast and Jason Leopold in Truth-out. Those articles spotlighted allegations of “malfeasance and misfeasance” in the run up to the 9/11 attacks, made to us on camera by the former White House counterterror adviser, Richard Clarke. They were leveled against the retired CIA director, George Tenet, who had responded by providing us a rare rebuttal letter in his own defense.
This was the first time we had seen our work as independent journalists published in well-read outlets. The story was soon picked up by several more prominent news sites, including that of the Washington Post, The Atlantic and an analysis by Pulitzer finalist Anthony Summers. We took advantage of our brief moment in the media spotlight to announce our end-game, a forthcoming audio documentary called "Who Is Rich Blee?"
We had taken audio from interviews we had been conducting and tied them together inside a kind of true-crime narrative. Since "Serial" these types of programs have been all the rage, but back then, when Gawker eventually reported on it, they had to put quotes around “investigative podcast.” Our basic thesis was that the unit called “Alec Station” had been the office at the CIA responsible for stopping Al Qaeda, and since Al Qaeda had successfully attacked the United States, there should have been some level of accountability brought to the members of that office. There had been none, as far as we could tell, for approaching 10 years, and most of Alec’s staff and their actions were still being obstructed from public view by a protective government. The identity of the station’s former leader, Rich Blee, had yet to be reported to the public in any major media.
It was Kevin Fenton, a British contemporary historian living in the Czech Republic, who first lifted the veil on Blee in 2009. Fenton had poured over the paperwork generated by various government reports and come across the name “Rich Blee” in the margins. Cross-referenced against what little public information was available about the former Alec Station manager, Fenton believed this Blee was the one alluded to vaguely in reports. We reached out to Fenton from across the pond and struck up a friendship.
At some point, one of our interviewees made us aware that one of Blee’s key managers was the same woman responsible for the high-profile kidnapping of an innocent German several years prior, Khaled el Masri. We took a look at a story about Masri published that year by the Associated Press, headlined “CIA Officers Make Grave Mistakes, Get Promoted.” That article by Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo blamed Masri’s mistaken “rendition” on a woman they called “Frances,” clarifying, “The AP agreed to the CIA’s request to refer to Frances by her middle name because her first is unusual.”
Soon after, Fenton let us know that he had searched public postings of U.S. State Department nominations, often cover for CIA employees working abroad, and had found a name that seemed to fit the bill: Alfreda Frances Bikowsky. Unusual first name? Check. Middle name Frances? Check.
As we continued interviewing insiders, we casually used the names Rich Blee and Alfreda Bikowsky while describing actions alleged to have been taken by figures fitting their descriptions in articles and reports. For all we knew, we had the wrong names entirely. The first few times we dropped those names, we did so nervously, knowing there was a good possibility that our interviewees might chastise us for our incorrect information. No one, however, corrected us. We became more confident.
It feels naive, looking back, but we felt we had a duty to allow Bikowsky and Blee the opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in our forthcoming podcast, to set the record straight. The response we received was almost immediate. Our phone rang, and at the other end of the line was an agency spokesperson, Preston Golson. Golson would go on to head their public communications branch for many more years.
A succession of phone calls and emails followed over several days, each initiated by Golson. He began multiple emails to us with the words, “What follows is off the record,” as if he were our journalistic source. During the calls, he attempted to engage in long conversations about the ethics and legality associated with naming the individuals.
At one point, a casually worded verbal threat surfaced, a statement by him along the lines that the agency might choose to see the publishing of our story, as written, as a prosecutable crime. This was cemented in writing in an email soon after, then another.
We were alarmed, and forwarded the CIA email to our allies. Author Ray Nowosielski wrote to our team, “I have to admit I’m spooked but still willing to proceed if it’s correct. Thoughts?”
Author John Duffy replied:
The CIA man says we could be violating the intelligence identities protection act. Haven’t fine-tooth combed it, but this seems to be the relevant portion:
SEC. 601. [50 U.S.C. 421] (a) Whoever, having or having had authorized access to classified information...
(b) Whoever, as a result of having authorized access to classified information...
(c) Whoever, in the course of a pattern of activities intended to identify and expose covert agents and with reason to believe that such activities would impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States...
Looking at all of the bolded portions, we have never had authorized access to classified information, so it doesn’t seem to apply to us. Crafty searching of public documents does not seem to apply. The only portion that may apply is under section C, as “pattern of activities” is very vague.
Also, it seems to only apply to covert agents. We are talking about analysts [working at headquarters.] Correct? People stationed in Langley are not covert, are they?
Kevin Fenton added his two cents:
The IIPA problem is section (c), pattern of activities. They can’t get you or me under (a) or (b). I guess [Lawrence] Wright was in the same situation in 2006 and he went for it [naming CIA individuals.] Thing is, he was a big fish and then it was hard to go after him. Maybe they would take you/us on now. I am on the other side of the pond, I doubt they would do a rendition from the Czech Republic.
One issue is not that one might eventually be found guilty. It is that one’s ass may be hauled through pre-trial stages and then the courts, if the agency so chooses. It might be a sort of Thomas Drake situation [the NSA whistleblower recently prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department].
Maybe you should reach out to [Bush administration CIA “outer”] Scooter Libby? I wonder what he would do in this situation.
Guys, it is your call. If you don’t want to do it, don’t. If you want to go for it, tell [Chelsea Manning] that Kevin says hi ...
An ally connected us with Ben Wizner, founder of the ACLU’s National Security Project, soon to be a principal legal adviser to Edward Snowden. Wizner explained by phone that the IIPA was created to go after government employees who had knowledge of classified information as part of their jobs and released the names of undercover intelligence agents. By precedent, it had never been applied to journalists. But, Wizner continued, paraphrased, it was clear the Obama administration was working to extend precedent in that area. When they did, he warned, it would not be Bob Woodward they went after. It would probably be nobodies like us.
Wizner already knew Bikowsky’s name. He imparted to us that she had become an “open secret” in Washington among human rights advocates, national security attorneys, reporters and others. Some of these sources began reaching out to us. We learned then that she was responsible for more than “just” the 9/11 failure and the mistaken rendition of Masri. We were told she was in charge of the drone assassinations program and had more or less been the number two running the War on Terror for the CIA.
It was information from another government source that brought into sharp focus for us the hornet’s nest we were presently kicking. Alfreda Bikowsky had been the person most credited internally at the Obama White House with the successful assassination of Usama Bin Laden only months prior in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The greatest PR coup of Barack Obama’s presidency belonged to her, a matter that was already changing her career trajectory.
The CIA’s media rep called us several more times in a period of days to ask if we had made a decision. Each conversation added a sense of pressure as we tried to decide the right course of action. “Ray,” Golson insisted, “you said in your first email that we should take appropriate steps to ensure their safety. You know you would be endangering them by releasing their names.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, Preston,” was our attempt to keep from getting pushed into affirmation by failure to deny. “I don’t know that. I have been told she has spent the bulk of her career working safely from Langley headquarters. Based on everything she has been accused of, I have a real fear that you all are leaving Americans in danger by keeping her in her position.”
* * *
After twelve days of consideration, the plan we came up with was simple. We would censor the name in our audio documentary, replacing each mention of Bikowsky with a robo-voice calling her “Frances” so audiences would know precisely where information was being withheld. Then we would announce a campaign to pressure the U.S. government to themselves reveal the CIA employee. We thought we could use the agency’s threats against us to generate more attention for our podcast, and ultimately the issues it exposed.
Fate, apparently, had other intentions. Fate, or dumb luck.
On the morning of Sept. 21, 2011, we emailed our webmaster with final instructions for the “go-live” of "Who Is Rich Blee?" In addition to the censored podcast, we asked him to place the correspondences with CIA, including George Tenet’s people, on a section of the website. Our webmaster had been aware of the issue regarding naming Bikowsky and our ultimate decision to hold off on releasing it, but in the midst of preparing multiple documents for the site, one letter he posted remained unredacted.
We were not immediately aware of what had happened. Our work on the piece was finished and released, and we spent the day at our jobs. That afternoon Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator running a muckraking blog called BoilingFrogsPost, emailed us that she had obtained the name Alfreda Bikowsky, and she also had “four outside confirmations; including current CIA folks.” She informed us that she was going to publish the breaking news within the next hour. She concluded with a line that caused us to raise an eyebrow, writing, “I just visited your site: Thank you for all you do, all you have been doing. You are heroes; at least mine:-)”
Stepping away to do a Google search for the name “Alfreda Bikowsky,” we discovered it, freshly posted, on the transparency website Cryptome run by John Young, sometimes referred to as “the original WikiLeaks.” The page linked back to our own site, where we saw the accidentally posted email to CIA. Shortly thereafter came a second posting on BoilingFrogsPost, also attributing our site. We felt the blood rush to our heads.
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The next day we returned to our day jobs. Journalist Jason Leopold, who would soon go on to greater success at VICE News and Buzzfeed, called the CIA for comment on our behalves. He was told, “This is now a legal matter.” Leopold’s sources inside the Justice Department, he told us, informed him an investigation had been opened. Such matters were often de facto after events like these, perhaps not a reason to assume the worst. We were worried nonetheless. As we each arrived at our homes that evening, we half expected federal agents waiting to question us. That moment never came.
* * *
After all the hoopla surrounding the CIA’s threats to us, Gawker and Salon turned out to be the only mainstream outlets that would run a story about Alfreda Bikowsky after her name was revealed. Both pieces came within a month of the outing, Gawker’s by future Intercept editor John Cook, a transparency die-hard who would get caught up in the famed Hulk Hogan lawsuit that brought down his outlet. Salon’s coverage was written by us, co-authored with Rory O’Connor of MediaChannel. Then, crickets.
The New York Times never picked it up, nor CNN or MSNBC. Over the next three years, only Adam Goldman mentioned her, but in passing, in a Washington Post piece about her CIA lawyer, Robert S. Litt. For our parts, we again tried in vain to bring attention to this issue in summer 2014 when we were invited to give a presentation at the hacker and whistleblower conference HOPE X in New York City. Inside what they were calling “the Chelsea Manning room,” on the eve of Edward Snowden’s teleconferenced keynote from his forced asylum in Russia, Nowosielski began his speech with the words, “World, meet Alfreda Bikowsky.”
It was the release of Congress’ so-called “torture report” later that year that finally knocked something loose. Matthew Cole, another future Intercept writer then at NBC, wrote in an online article, “US officials who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity confirmed that [one female CIA manager’s] name was redacted at least three dozen times in an effort to avoid publicly identifying her. In fact, much of the four-month battle between Senate Democrats and the CIA about redactions centered on protecting the identity of the woman, an analyst and later ‘deputy chief’ of the unit devoted to catching or killing Usama bin Laden.”
After explaining how central this woman was to the report and that she was still working in an important position, Cole added, “NBC News is withholding her name at the request of the CIA, which cited a climate of fear and retaliation in the wake of the release of the committee’s report in asking that her anonymity be protected.” Their TV division never aired it.
The legendary Jane Mayer brought further attention to Cole’s story with a brief piece in the New Yorker entitled “The Unidentified Queen of Torture.” Yet she too refused to use the name. When Bikowsky’s identity first emerged, John Cook had contacted Mayer about it, and she had responded at the time, “I identified everyone I felt was appropriate in my book, and am sorry not to be of more help but need to leave it at that.”
At long last came Glenn Greenwald, the man Edward Snowden had chosen to bring his NSA revelations to the public only a year and a half prior, along with Peter Maass, whose piece late that year was aptly named, “Meet Alfreda Bikowsky.” They explained, “The Intercept is naming Bikowsky over CIA objections because of her key role in misleading Congress about the agency’s use of torture, and her active participation in the torture program (including playing a direct part in the torture of at least one innocent detainee). Moreover, Bikowsky has already been publicly identified by news organizations as the CIA officer responsible for many of these acts.”
Consider this: Prior to her naming, there were subtle references to Bikowsky in the reports of Congress’ intelligence committees, the blue-ribbon 9/11 commission, the Justice Department’s inspector general, and the CIA’s inspector general, as well as the CIA IG’s redacted “torture” reports, Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower," Jane Mayer’s best-selling "The Dark Side" and several other prominent news stories. After the AP’s report about her ordered kidnapping of the innocent Khaled El Masri, that mistaken “rendition” had been determined in 2012 by a rare historic unanimous court judgment to be a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights’ prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. Despite this reality, her name was always withheld, preventing a concerned public from tracking her story.
Eleven years and 10 months. That is the amount of time that passed between Bikowsky’s first of many alleged acts of criminality — the potential for obstruction of justice charges over her involvement in the December 2000 withholding of information requested by FBI criminal investigator Ali Soufan into the bombing of the USS Cole — until the date the public could identify her. A number of America’s finest journalists, the works of many government watchdog entities, and yet it took a random miscommunication with a webmaster working for unpaid amateurs to turn this around.
Were 11 years, 10 months -- and some blind circumstance -- really the best we as a country could expect? What damage had been done in the interim that might have been prevented? Where were all the people who were supposed to ensure oversight and accountability? Several CIA directors, three presidents, the Senate and House intelligence committees, inspectors general, a host of international, federal and local prosecutors and America’s “fourth estate?” How had they all failed in her case? As far as is known, Alfreda Bikowsky still heads to work every day at CIA headquarters. She is reportedly now married to Michael Scheuer, who recently called for Donald Trump’s followers to be ready to take up arms on his behalf.
"The Watchdogs Didn’t Bark" is a new book from John Duffy and Ray Nowosielski, available for purchase through Skyhorse Publishing’s HotBooks. Follow on Twitter @BarkWatchdogs Learn more at the web site https://watchdogsbark.com/