From a cramped motor home in a Montana campground where Internet access is as spotty as the trout, Richard Barlow wakes each morning to battle Washington.
Once a top intelligence officer at the Pentagon who helped uncover Pakistan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, Barlow insisted on telling the truth, and it led to his undoing.
He complained in 1989 that top officials in the administration of President George H.W. Bush–including the deputy assistant secretary of defense–were misleading Congress about the Pakistani program. He was fired and stripped of his security clearances. His intelligence career was destroyed; his marriage collapsed.
Federal investigations found Barlow was unfairly fired, winning him sympathy from dozens of Democratic and Republican lawmakers and public interest groups. But for 17 years, he has fought without success to gain a federal pension, blocked at every turn by legal and political obstacles also faced by other federal intelligence whistle-blowers.
“This case has been put before the Congress to right a wrong, and for various reasons, they’ve failed to do it,” said Robert Gallucci, dean of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an expert in nonproliferation. “It’s infuriating.”
Barlow, 52, and his supporters want funding added to the defense authorization bill to be debated by the Senate when it returns from recess next week. The mechanism Barlow hopes to use–a private relief bill that benefits a specific individual–is increasingly rare and, in his case, still faces hurdles.
Gallucci has known Barlow since the late 1980s, when Barlow was tracking the work of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist amassing materials to produce nuclear weapons. Some of the men setting policy at the Defense Department at the time of Barlow’s firing–Stephen Hadley, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney–resurfaced in the current Bush administration, which Democrats and others have accused of shaping intelligence on the Iraq war to fit political goals.
Barlow’s intelligence work began at the CIA, where he analyzed nuclear programs in other countries. He contributed to the National Intelligence Estimates and presented findings to national security agencies, the White House and congressional committees. He received the CIA’s Exceptional Accomplishment Award in 1988.
The next year, he became the first intelligence officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, charged with analyzing nuclear weapons developments involving foreign governments. He answered to Gerald Brubaker, the acting director of the Office of Non-Proliferation. Supervising Brubaker was Victor Rostow, the principal director. Rostow reported to Deputy Assistant Secretary James Hinds, who reported to Assistant Secretary Stephen Hadley.
At the time, the government was poised to sell $1.4 billion worth of new F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan to help the mujaheddin fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. But Congress, through two laws passed in 1985, had forbidden the sale of any equipment that could be used to deliver nuclear bombs.
Barlow wrote an analysis for then-Secretary Dick Cheney that concluded the planned F-16 sale violated this law. Drawing on detailed, classified studies, Barlow wrote about Pakistan’s ability, intentions and activities to deliver nuclear bombs using F-16s it had acquired before the law was passed.
Barlow discovered later that someone rewrote his analysis so that it endorsed the sale of the F-16s. Arthur Hughes, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, testified to Congress that using the F-16s to deliver nuclear weapons “far exceeded the state of art in Pakistan” –something Barlow knew to be untrue.
In the summer of 1989, Barlow told Brubaker, Rostow and Michael MacMurray, the Pakistan desk officer in charge of military sales to Pakistan who prepared Hughes’s testimony, that Congress had been misled.
Within days, Barlow was fired.
“They clearly didn’t want the nonproliferation policy to get in the way of their regional policy,” Gallucci said. “They were worried someone like Rich (Barlow), in his stickler approach, would insist that if there’s going to be testimony on the Hill about the F-16 aircraft, that the answers be full and truthful. He was a thorn in their side, and they went after him. And they did a very good job of screwing up his life.”
In a 2000 deposition provoked by Barlow’s subsequent lawsuit, Hadley said he remembered underlings proposing to terminate an employee in August 1989 but did not recall “someone named Richard Barlow.” In a separate deposition, Wolfowitz also testified he could not recall Barlow. But Wolfowitz told Congress in 1990 that the retaliation Barlow faced was wrong and the government was legally obligated to keep Congress informed about Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
“There have been times on that issue when I specifically sensed that people thought we could somehow construct a policy on a house of cards that the Congress wouldn’t know what the Pakistanis were doing,” Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
After a 1993 joint probe, the inspector general at the State Department concluded that Barlow had been fired as a reprisal, while the inspector generals at the CIA and the Defense Department maintained that the Pentagon was within its rights to fire Barlow. Congress directed the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) to conduct its own investigation, which was completed in 1997 and largely vindicated Barlow.
Barlow’s security clearances were restored, but he was unable to get rehired permanently by the government because of the cloud over his record, he said. Instead, he has worked as a contractor for a range of federal agencies, including the CIA, the State Department, the FBI and Sandia National Laboratories.
That left him without the $89,500 annual pension and health insurance that Barlow believes the government owes him.
He faces no organized opposition now but has so far been stymied by government inertia, the passage of time, congressional procedural errors, and endless debates over how much money he’s due and the proper legislative vehicle for his pension.
Twenty Senators and eight legislative committees have considered his case over the years without resolving it, suggesting a larger dilemma: No process exists to compensate fired whistle-blowers in the intelligence field, and those who retaliate against them face no criminal penalties.
A 1998 law instead allows employees of the CIA, parts of the Defense Department, the FBI and the National Security Agency to notify their agency’s inspector general that they intend to disclose a matter of “urgent concern” to congressional intelligence committees. But there is no remedy if they suffer retaliation for using this legal channel.
“There just isn’t a venue for someone like him,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization that investigates and exposes corruption. “He was trying to prevent lies to Congress about something of global importance. And he didn’t even go to Congress–all he did was suggest that Congress not be lied to.”
Brian and Gallucci believe that had Barlow’s alarms been heeded in 1989, Khan might have been deterred from building the world’s largest atomic black market–a network that has since supplied nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Some Hill staffers say they worry that granting Barlow a pension will cause hundreds of other injured whistle-blowers to demand similar treatment. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a known champion of whistle-blowers who supports Barlow’s quest, is contacted each week by four new whistle-blowers looking for help, said his spokeswoman, Beth Levine. But Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is considering sponsoring legislation providing Barlow a pension or a lump-sum payment, a staffer said.
Bingaman attempted to sponsor a private relief bill for Barlow once before, in 1998. But another senator persuaded colleagues to refer it to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which hears lawsuits that seek money from the federal government in excess of $10,000. During the case, which lasted four years, the Justice Department invoked a “state secrets” privilege to block the court from seeing most of Barlow’s evidence, according to Barlow’s pro bono lawyer, Joseph Ostoyich.
In 2002, the court found that Barlow was not entitled to protection under whistle-blower laws. “It was a galling situation,” Ostoyich said. “There was plenty of evidence … and all of (it) … was taken out of the court’s hands. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Barlow’s original pro bono attorney, Paul Warnke, who was President Jimmy Carter’s chief arms-control negotiator, died in 2001.
An attempt several months ago by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to sponsor a private relief bill for Barlow encountered resistance from House Armed Services Committee lawyers who said there was no precedent for it, according to her staff. Next, she tried to offer a simple resolution stating that Congress supported Barlow in his efforts, but that was thwarted by the Rules Committee, which was juggling more than 100 other requests deemed more pressing.
Since his most recent employment contract at Sandia ended, Barlow has been living in a motor home that he parks in Montana during the summer and drives to Arizona or California in the winter. Most of his possessions, including 200 pounds of documents related to his fight, are sitting in a storage locker he rents for $100 a month.
Most weekdays, he pushes his cause in cellphone calls and e-mails to Washington from his motor home, dogging Hill staffers with a tenacity that seems bottomless and can be off-putting. “This is such an extraordinary case,” Brian said. “He was trying to say `Wait a minute, Congress needs to be told the truth because they’re making important decisions about nuclear proliferation,’ and the guy is living in a trailer.” Washington Post