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 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.
It’s been nearly five years since Hoh turned in his resignation letter 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 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, could turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan with the came COIN doctrine that “won” Iraq 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). 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) and the Battle of Kandahar 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 Postat the time. Holbrooke died in 2010.
But after returning to Foggy Bottom and seeing what he described as the Stepford-like resolve 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, 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 for leaking classified information to the press, which he denied. The federal prosecution was relentless but eventually fizzled, 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 (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.
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.
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.