THESSALONIKI – Asked at a panel on whistleblowing at the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) what was in his upbringing that helped him make the choice to reveal torture was a practice in the CIA where he was a top field operative who helped capture major terrorists – an act which eventually led to his being jailed for two years – John Kiriakou reached back.
“It was coming from a Greek-American family and learning right from wrong. Torture was wrong,” he told an audience and panel discussing the reporting of wrongdoing, the consequences and remedies of going against your employer to bring to light corruption, money laundering and, in his case, waterboarding of terrorist suspects.
It was a group who knew about the dirty business they try to put on spotlight on: University of Melbourne lecturer and author Suelette Drefyus, who heads the group Blueprint for Free Speech and has set up Blueprint Greece to track corruption in that country and the European Union.
Anna Damaskou, Chair of Transparency International Greece, is working to also bring more protection to whistleblowers and uncover corruption in a country with one of the EU’s, and world’s worst records; noted investigative journalist Tasos Telloglou, whose digging has helped bring down networks of criminals at the highest levels; and Prof. Vassilis Barkoukis on the faculty of Physical Education and Sports Science at Aristotle University, talking about doping and sports scandals.
It was put together by David Wisner, Executive Director of the Michael and Kitty Dukakis Center for Public and Humanitarian Service and moderated by lawyer and professor Lambrini Nassis, who also practices in New York, as an event to showcase the dilemmas whistleblowers face and some clear answers: transparency and having the courage to come forward even in the face of retaliation, being fired or dragged through the courts to defend your actions.
Kiriakou said he found out it’s essentially impossible to stand against the full weight of the US government when it wants to make an example of you, which is what he said happened in his case when he was forced to choose between pleading guilty to passing classified information to a reporter and taking a two-year sentence or facing up to 18 years.
“If they want to get you they will because they have unlimited resources,” he said.
He said his lawyers gave him a stark answer to what he was facing. “I had children so it became an economic decision. They said this case is much bigger than John Kiriakou. It’s about national security whistleblowing. The goal is to make sure every other person in government who is thinking of blowing the whistle keeps his mouth shut,” he said he was told.
It went against his grain and upbringing but said he did what he thought was right despite the cost. “You won’t find a whistleblower who regrets what he or she did,” he said.
Dreyfus, an internationally-known cybersecurity analyst, said that, “Most people who are whistleblowers that I’ve interviewed have no idea they are whistleblowers … in some countries public support for whistleblowers is incredibly strong,” empowering them even as investigative reporters in Slovakia and Malta were murdered in the past year.
The Whistleblower panel at the American College of Thessaloniki (L-R): Prof. Lambrini Nassis, Suelette Dreyfus, Prof. Vassilis Barkoukis, Anna Damaskou, John Kiriakou, Tasos Telloglou and David Wisner. (Photo by TNH/Andy Dabilis)
“We have to provide an umbrella of protection,” she said. Her group has pushed the European Parliament and European Union to strengthen whistleblowers laws and make them uniform. Greece, she said, ranks somewhere in the middle of the 28 countries in the bloc during an uncertain scandal in which 10 rival politicians to the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA were accused of taking bribes from a Swiss pharmaceutical company based on the testimony of three secret whistleblowers, with no evidence of wrongdoing yet uncovered.
Damaskou, a lawyer specializing in banking and financial law, said that, “Legislation to protect whistleblowers doesn’t go far enough,” and talked of working with one who reported wrongdoing in her business only to discover the crime she reported wasn’t covered by the law and found herself facing 100 law suits and being taken through the courts endless.
“She had heard about whistleblowing laws and thought she was protected and spoke up,” said Damaskou, citing the case as an example of why uniform and tough laws are needed not across the bloc. “This person might endanger their jobs … even their lives,” she said.
“We’re a step closer in Greece to whistleblowing protection,” she said, with new laws being reviewed and as her organization and Blueprint are pushing to safeguard those who report wrongdoing from retaliation.
As Dreyfus noted: “Organizations are resistant to having whistleblowing and whistleblowing channels … whistleblowing is relatively new and a lot of governments don’t know how to do it and it has to do with national cultures,” in which people often are reluctant to act.
Barkoukis said there’s a link between corruption in politics and business and sports. “We need to change people’s minds about reporting something that is wrong … sports is a mirror of our society,” he said.
“If we get these people in sports for whistleblowing and against corruption they can transfer this to other parts of social life. Many young people take part in sports. The basic aim is to change the culture that whistleblowing is something bad to something that is essential,” he added.
Telloglou told the story of a source who reported a massive oil smuggling ring in Thessaloniki where the commodity was hidden in a number of underground tanks and wanted it to be known but was afraid because of the powerful people involved. He asked the reporter if he was willing to go to court with him for years.
“I couldn’t offer him money or a lawyer but I offered to be his witness,” he said. “At this time there was no protection for whistleblowers. It was back in 2000.” So entangled was the web, he said, that even prosecutors were protecting criminals but the chief wanted them rooted out.
“The prosecutor asked me to help him dismantle the prosecutors who were working with the ring,” he said. He added wistfully: “Corruption is deep and long term.”