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Washington Doesn’t Forgive Whistleblowers

“That was the first I saw of the racket.”

For Matthew Hoh, a former Marine, government official, and civilian contract overseer in Iraq, seeing “the racket” for the first time was a turning point that eventually led him to turn his back on a successful and heady career in Washington. He became a whistleblower by decrying a failing strategy in Afghanistan, and for a while, was a bone fide cause célèbre. But like others who have made similar leaps of conscience, Hoh has found out the hard way that Washington does not forgive.

“Certainly I couldn’t find work for anything,” he told TAC in a recent interview. “I went for something like 24 months out of 36 months without a paycheck. I couldn’t get temporary work or [work] driving a town car… I was selling cars.”

The Washington national security and foreign policy establishment is apparently closed to Hoh now, no matter how right he was. Starting over, as fellow whistleblower Tom Drake [1] pointed out, can be an emotionally crippling experience, especially when you know you it was your own decision to take the path that brought you to this point.


Hoh’s story

It’s been nearly five years since Hoh turned in his resignation letter [2] to the U.S. State Department, for which he was working as a senior civilian representative tasked with assessing the progress of the counterinsurgency operations in the Taliban center of gravity, southeastern Afghanistan. Hoh was sent into the country along with thousands [3] of fresh U.S. Marine and Army deployments under new president Barack Obama.

At the time, the military establishment back home was confident that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as a member of Gen. David Petraeus’ inner circle [4], could turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan with the came COIN doctrine that “won” Iraq [5] during the surge. Hoh saw things very differently. As a Marine who had served in Iraq as both a company commander and a civilian administrator, he had already sensed the futility of that war, the corruption of the reconstruction effort—the aforementioned “racket” in which tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi assets and American money were disappearing into the pockets of crafty businessmen with little to show for it (things that another now underemployed whistleblower, Peter Van Buren, colorfully describes in his own memoirs [6]). Hoh was seasoned but open-minded. He ended up, however, disillusioned.

“I was naive,” Hoh said bluntly. “I felt we learned our lesson in Iraq and were going to do things differently. When Petraeus took over (U.S. Central Command) in the fall of 2008, he made the point, over and over, that it wouldn’t be a military solution but a political solution. That’s what my view was. I wanted to be involved, it was my career, that is what I lived for.” Going back, Hoh felt, too, that it would help him with the demons at his own door, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At least it would be better than dealing with it from a Pentagon desk job back home. He was 36.

“Not surprisingly,” he said, recalling his time in Nangahar province in the East and Zabul province in the South, what he found “was a very confused situation, very frustrating in terms of how the military was being run, how ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) was being run.”

He said it was clear they were trying to force an Iraq surge template on Afghanistan, and that it was not going to work. The U.S. presence there was fueling the insurgency, and increasing the legitimacy of Taliban forces. “We were trying to win some morality play,” he said.

When your narrative is false, then you are not recognizing that you are occupying a country and creating this political vacuum and not allowing a legitimate political order to be established, and you’re marginalizing a significant element of the population who will be playing into the propaganda of extremists like al Qaeda or insurgents like the Taliban.

For Hoh, it wasn’t just the strategy that was wrong, it was the war itself. “I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he wrote. Hoh’s struggle with what he was experiencing on the ground was compounded by the fact the American people were getting a completely different version of events back home. This “theater” would continue through Operation Moshtarek (Marjah) [7] and the Battle of Kandahar [8] in 2010. And this, says Hoh, was nothing to be proud of.

“I couldn’t look at anyone anymore and say their son or daughter died for a good cause,” he says, recalling his last days at the State Department. “I wrote up this resignation letter basically telling them off, that we all know what we are doing there is wrong and these kids are dying for no reason,” he recalled.

He wasn’t let go easily. He recalls that he met with then-U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who empathized with Hoh’s misgivings, but implored him to stay; he even convinced Hoh, momentarily, during a meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. “We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,” Holbrooke said in an interview with the Washington Post [9] at the time. Holbrooke died in 2010.

But after returning to Foggy Bottom and seeing what he described as the Stepford-like resolve [10] of the State Department staffers, Hoh knew things would be no different. “They were talking about a completely different war,” than the one he had seen. “They were wearing blinders. Clearly the only Afghans they had ever spoken to were Afghans in power, or those on our payroll. After that, I called (Holbrooke) back and said I can’t do this, it’s not the right thing.”

For his part, Hoh had not planned on going to the press. He had met a Post reporter at D.C. bar, watching a football game one evening about a month after sending the letter. After a lengthy conversation, he was asked to call the newsroom the next day. He spoke with top reporter Karen DeYoung. What happened next is history.

“When I woke up the next morning (after the publication) my phone messages exploded, my Facebook page exploded.” There were black suburbans and reporters with cameras congregating outside of his apartment building. He did a lot of media then, and not surprisingly, received backlash from the COIN crowd who immediately tried to discredit him on the military blogs and on Wikipedia.

“Media would tell me they were getting calls from people saying I wasn’t who I said I was,” Hoh said. After a whirlwind of speaking engagements and media appearances, speaking largely against the war, he retained a position with the new Afghan Study Group, hosted by the New America Foundation—his last real chance for working in the field he loves. Unfortunately, his PTSD was overtaking his life, his temperament was erratic, and he was drinking too much. He left voluntarily. From there, things went downhill.

“I went until April 2013 without a paycheck,” he said. He got back on his feet, mostly through friends and family and a good PTSD program at the VA. But all he had to look forward to at that point was finding odd jobs. He moved back with his parents in North Carolina to start over.

By then the props and staging had fallen away in Afghanistan, and it was clear COIN indeed had been an overhyped promise.  No one today is likely to argue otherwise. Nevertheless, it was dawning on Hoh that he had little chance of getting into his old field, even if his assessments about Afghanistan had been spot-on.

“A couple of friends had wanted to get me a job in the federal government,” he recalled. One had gotten a note back from a prospective employer that read simply, “this is the guy you want me to talk to?” with a link to his story online.

The Whistleblower Blacklist

Jesselyn Radack [11], a whistleblower and attorney who now serves clients like Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden for the Government Accountability Project, said Hoh’s case is not atypical. “I consider Matthew Hoh a hero,” she told TAC. However, “far too often, whistleblowers end up blacklisted, bankrupt, and broken. Even when you prevail, there’s still this taint, often due in no small part to the government upon which you blew the whistle.”

“It’s very socially isolating – you are disconnected from a profession in which you grew up, and a profession in which you poured a lot of yourself into, where you were recognized as being a part of the government and military,” said Drake, a decorated military veteran who was a senior-level National Security Agency executive when he started back-channeling his concerns to Congress and the press about the unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping of Americans in the early 2000s. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act [12] for leaking classified information to the press, which he denied. The federal prosecution was relentless but eventually fizzled [13], and the government dropped all charges in exchange for a guilty plea to one misdemeanor charge, for exceeding authorized use of his government computer.

Drake was forced to do 240 hours of community service. He had already lost his job, his pension, and security clearances. He now works at an Apple Store.

“If you try to re-engage with another part of the government, your chances are slim to none. Washington [institutions] have very long memories, they can hold grudges for years, sometimes decades,” Drake tells TAC. Meanwhile, even non-profits that advocate for whistleblowers and civil liberties have been hesitant to bring him on, despite his expertise and obvious commitment. He senses that he might be seen as a drag with big name donors who are notoriously skittish when it comes to controversy. “I’m aware of it – especially in this climate.”

That’s why, added Hoh, “you see all these (whistleblowers) at the Ridenhour awards [14] (of which Hoh and Drake are both recipients) and these guys are working at craft stores or Apple Stores or the YMCA.”

He said he is in a much better place today and frankly, wants nothing to do with the Beltway scene other than to advocate for greater government transparency and whistleblower protections. While he continues to look for full-time employment, he is lending a hand to the Institute for Public Accuracy’s ExposeFacts.org [15].

Does he have advice for future whistleblowers? Hoh certainly doesn’t want to discourage them. “Don’t be naive about it and prepare yourself and your family and reach out for help,” he said.

Regrets? No. If anything, he now sees Washington for what it is—“a racket.”

“No one is going to hire you to tell them what they are doing is wrong. It’s about the money. Money drives the policy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get a job there but you know, it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter [16].

This story has been updated to accurately reflect that Matthew Hoh could not obtain temporary work or work driving a town car after going public.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Washington Doesn’t Forgive Whistleblowers"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 30, 2014 @ 8:48 am

I empathize. But he resigned. And on that score for all the travails, as wrong as they are as incredibly childish. he resigned. Even I would have counseled against that.

I want honor his integrity. But he was not forced out. They did not create such hostility on his person and his psyche such that he thought he was I a twilight zone episode day after day.

That is the life of many whistle blowers or those who become persona non grata —

He was embrace for whatever reason, so his choice is less sympathetic to me.

I would fight for him and challenge the childishness of those who have engaged in preventing his right to earn a living.

But I have to admit some irritation that he resigned.

#2 Comment By John On July 30, 2014 @ 8:57 am

Mark Felt waited 31 years after the Watergate Committee’s report and 11 years after Nixon’s death to confirm that he was Deep Throat. Think about that.

Not that I’m defending what happened to any of those mentioned in this article, but it’s always been like this.

#3 Comment By Johann On July 30, 2014 @ 9:52 am

“They were wearing blinders. Clearly the only Afghans they had ever spoken to were Afghans in power, or those on our payroll. ”

I think this is much of the problem with career politicians and bureaucrats. One gets the sense that when the administration was pushing Syrian intervention, the main people they were talking to were Syrian ex-patriots who probably were reasonable civilized people. The problem was, the insulated officials and politicians mistakenly believed these ex-pats were representative of the Syrian rebels.

I don’t intend to detract from the main intent of the article, but we must acknowledge that its possible Mr. Hoh’s problems with alcohol may have been a major reason why he was not employed for a long period of time. To the writers credit, it was included in the article.

#4 Comment By Madhu On July 30, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

Yes, this is the sad history of whistle blowers. The CIA agent that blew the whistle on the Pakistani nuclear program and its connections to DC insiders is, what, relegated to living in a trailer out West?

Holbrooke was no better than the Coindinistas, however, a Clintonian Big Man who thought “AfPak” was Bosnia, who thought that he could serve as some kind of neutral envoy to solve “Kashmir,” when, both left and right in the US have contributed to the continuation of that issue by meddling in it. The history of both right and left–and, sadly, even some non-interventionists–has been one of increasing militarization in Pakistan.

Aid is fungible and aid has prevented proper internal governance in our big aid receivers but it is a big lobby in DC, not on par with the military lobby, but nonetheless entrenched as can be….

Michael Hoh told the truth as he saw it. The one thing the DC consensus cannot handle.

#5 Comment By Madhu On July 30, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

“The problem was, the insulated officials and politicians mistakenly believed these ex-pats were representative of the Syrian rebels.”

Good comment. This is a continual problem for the Beltway Bubble, the nature of immigrant diasporas and how they combine with elite power brokers in DC and its various think tank and other intellectuals.

Their narrow world becomes THE world. You cannot convince them otherwise. They are experts.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 30, 2014 @ 2:51 pm

“Unfortunately, his PTSD was overtaking his life, his temperament was erratic, and he was drinking too much. He left voluntarily. From there, things went downhill.”

On the matter of service . . . after some thought on the impact of PTSD. . .

Here I am fully prepared to defend the gentleman. PTSD is most likely the direct result from his honorable service in combat zones. And for which he and other veterans have yet to be given the benefit of the doubt fully. In that we have yet to treat the return of those operating in hazard duty arenas with vigor and seriousness. No one returning from such duty should be permitted to depart the service without a six to eight week transitional period in which they are actively decompressed and their life in such service fully confronted, not by psychotropic drugs, but by their own self assessment and complete and unconditional welcome. No less than eight weeks in which every service member does some self work on their emotions, intellect, behaviors, ability to assess, decision make with applied skills taught and reinforced that are as available to them in any situation in time of need with the same instinct that they would marshal a weapon to defend self and comrade. In this case returning to a peacetime environment those comrades, are self, wife, children, relatives, neighbors and the public at large.

For my part, here I must extend a all done compassion and respect for the service this gentleman has and others have done on the name of country. if I could reach down into your being, I would scrape away any thought of waste by or your fellows in arms on your mission, regardless of the lack of strategic wisdom to which you endeavoured. That is not on you, but those of us at home. If I could, I would sever you and others from any guilt at the lives taken in the performance of your duty. That is wholly and utterly not to your fault. We ask you to do what is without question an insane task requiring the spilling of blood when required — the guilt rests with us — not you. Never you. (minus and criminal activity and even then — much to our stead).

In all sincerity and with deep appreciation — I embrace you and your service. I applaud it. And I intend to honor it.

I am going to acknowledge something else. And it will seem odd perhaps. The attempt to hold on to you is to your stead and even a conscious or unconscious recognition that they fully grasped what you experienced beyond the issue of your complaints. That perhaps, in some manner you talent and skills were emblematic of what they so risked and maintaining your service was in some manner reflective of their attempt at recompense. A stretch, maybe. It does not alleviate any attempt by they or others to punish you for your choice to resign as a manner of service to correction. But your description if accurate is reflective of integrity and that is an unmarketable commodity because it has no price.

I appreciate your service in and out of the military. And while, I the resignation would not have been my counsel, in particular as to method, I count your service to country with no small price.

To the comment that no one is hired to tell one’s employer what they are doing wrong . . . I can only respond with this.

If they are defeating their own purposes and wasting their resources no employee who does not so inform of how to correct the above is an employee worth having. Because every business owner and CEO knows, that is exactly what they want and suggestions to improve organizational effectiveness for owner or stake holders.

I appreciate you behaving responsibly in such matters.

Appreciate your service.

#7 Comment By VietVet On July 30, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

My heart breaks for this honest, decent man. As I saw in Vietnam, our sacrifices were not for country, but for the advancement and later false pride of politicians, and the profits of the “defense” industries. For a tiny fraction of the treasure and commitment that has been spent on these cynical wars our country could have rebuilt its infrastructure and created the most educated citizenry in the world. Washington and Eisenhower’s farewell warnings on foreign entanglements and militarism are as relevant, and ignored, as ever.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 30, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

just to be clear:

I did not support either invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, but I am sympathetic to those who served

#9 Comment By zoey27 On August 2, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

I have wondered for a long time what happened to Matthew after his brave act of resigning. I am thankful he accidentally ended up having to explain this to the American public. He did a great job of informing us of the folly of where we were headed and painted a clear picture of why it was not a good idea. I often quoted him in discussions. Interesting to discover he never intended his resignation and reasons to be made public. It was a personal matter of conscience. Thankfully, it did become public and informed us of the other point of view. So many lives have been lost needlessly because the MIC rules our country. Thank you, Matthew, for bringing truth and clarity in warning us not to go forward with that war. I hope you write a book about your experiences as I’ve often thought of you and wondered what happened. You were right. The generals were wrong.

#10 Comment By Chris On August 5, 2014 @ 11:25 pm

It’s so sad that people who do the right thing, that try to correct the wrongs that the US has made in the past, and who blow the whistle end up like this.

I think it’s a testament to why Western society has gone into decline so rapidly. Whistleblowers and those who dare say the truth are not welcome. Instead those who perpetuate the deep state end up with the big jobs, making the big money, and well, keeping that very same system alive.

It’s that those who have done wrong for the world have a stake in keeping that wrong silenced … or else they may have to face the consequences.