How a C.I.A. Coverup Targeted a Whistle-blower
When a Justice Department lawyer exposed the agency’s secret role in drug cases, leadership in the intelligence community retaliated.
By Roman Farrow
Before dawn on January 23, 2019, Mark McConnell arrived at the Key West headquarters of the military and civilian task force that monitors drugs headed to the United States from the Southern Hemisphere.
McConnell, a prosecutor at the Department of Justice and a former marine, left his phone in a box designed to block electronic transmissions, and passed through a metal detector and a key-card-protected air lock to enter the building. On the second floor, he punched in the code for his office door, then locked it behind him. On a computer approved for the handling of classified information, he loaded a series of screenshots he had taken, showing entries in a database called Helios, which federal law enforcement uses to track drug smugglers. McConnell e-mailed the images to a classified government hotline for whistle-blowers. Then he printed backup copies and, following government procedures for handling classified information, sealed them in an envelope that he placed in another envelope, marked “secret.” He hid the material behind a piece of furniture.
McConnell had uncovered what he described as a “criminal conspiracy” perpetrated by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. Every year, entries in the Helios database lead to hundreds of drug busts, which lead to prosecutions in American courts. The entries are typically submitted to Helios by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the F.B.I., and a division of the Department of Homeland Security. But McConnell had learned that more than a hundred entries in the database that were labelled as originating from F.B.I. investigations were actually from a secret C.I.A. surveillance program. He realized that C.I.A. officers and F.B.I. agents, in violation of federal law and Department of Justice guidelines, had concealed the information’s origins from federal prosecutors, leaving judges and defense lawyers in the dark. Critics call such concealment “intelligence laundering.” In the nineteen-seventies, after C.I.A. agents were found to have performed experiments with LSD on unwitting Americans and investigated Vietnam War protesters, restrictions were imposed that bar the agency from being involved in domestic law-enforcement activities. Since the country’s founding, judges, jurors, and defendants have generally had the right to know how evidence used in a trial was gathered. “This was undisclosed information, from an agency working internationally with different rules and standards,” Nancy Gertner, a retired federal district judge and a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School, told me. “This should worry Trump voters who talk about a ‘deep state.’ This is the quintessential deep state. This is activities beyond your view, fundamentally affecting what happens in American courts.”
But the scheme benefitted the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.: the former received information obtained during operations, and the latter reported increased arrests and was able to secure additional federal funding as a result. The scope of the scheme was corroborated in hundreds of pages of e-mails, transcripts, and other documents obtained by The New Yorker.
For weeks, C.I.A. officials had been trying to stop McConnell from revealing the agency’s activities. They sent a lawyer to Key West with nondisclosure agreements, but McConnell refused to sign. A day before his early arrival at the office, McConnell had learned of an order to delete the screenshots on his computer. “I knew that I had to get the electronic evidence to outside investigators,” he told me. “There was no doubt about what I needed to do, and there was no doubt retaliation against me would follow.” He worked quickly, not knowing when security officers would arrive. Later that day, they came to McConnell’s office and deleted the images.
A little more than a month later, after C.I.A. officials accused McConnell of “spilling” classified information, the director of the task force suspended him. Soon, the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, visited the task force and was briefed on the matter. According to a sworn affidavit that McConnell filed with the Senate Intelligence Committee, and to a source with knowledge of the meeting, Haspel said that there needed to be repercussions for McConnell. (A C.I.A. spokesperson, Timothy Barrett, called the allegation “inaccurate and a gross mischaracterization.”) The military leadership of the task force ignored McConnell’s appeal of his suspension, and discussions about future assignments came to an abrupt halt. Six officials said that they believed the C.I.A. had retaliated against McConnell, leaving him nominally employed but unable to find a new post after decades of public service.
“This was appalling and blatant,” Tom Padden, one of McConnell’s supervisors, who has filed his own whistle-blower complaint, told me. “It was a blatant attempt to silence a career public servant who identified a real issue.” McConnell and other officials accused Patrick Hovakimian, the Associate Deputy Attorney General, of failing to protect McConnell. Hovakimian is President Trump’s nominee to become the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and his handling of whistle-blower issues has been a central question in his confirmation process. (A Justice Department spokesperson said that Hovakimian enlisted a department lawyer and other officials “to ensure that any whistle-blower was treated appropriately.”)
Last month, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, notified Attorney General William Barr and Christopher Wray, the F.B.I. director, that the committee would be investigating McConnell’s allegations and requested records related to his case. Senator Ron Wyden, of Oregon, said that he would be calling on the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate as well, and told me, “Senior officials should never punish employees who raise concerns about abuse, especially when it concerns secret programs or activities.” McConnell said, “The C.I.A. has corrupted F.B.I. agents to violate basic rules as to how the Department of Justice does criminal prosecutions.”
Mark McConnell, who is sixty-six, was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. He was brought up by his grandparents, a paper-mill worker and a homemaker. When McConnell was seven, he took to wearing the garrison cap of his father, a former marine. McConnell was the first in his family to go beyond high school; he counted coins at the Federal Reserve Coin Vault to pay for junior college, which he attended at night. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from Florida State University before returning to Jacksonville to work as a public defender. Later, he spent six years on active duty in the U.S. Marines. After leaving active duty, in 1995, he worked as a state prosecutor and at the Department of Justice, where for sixteen years he has investigated fraud, corruption, national-security matters, and drug trafficking. McConnell has a salt-and-pepper mustache and speaks in a clipped Southern accent. “He’s of a high moral character,” a law-enforcement official who has worked with him told me. “Matter of fact, he’s so straight it sometimes annoys people.”
In July, 2017, McConnell was assigned to the Joint Interagency Task Force South, in Key West. It comprises people from various parts of the military, law-enforcement agencies including the D.E.A. and the F.B.I., and intelligence agencies including the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. McConnell kept his office sparse—the only sign of his military service was a photograph of the decorated marine Chesty Puller, with the quote “We’re surrounded. That simplifies things.”
Shortly after McConnell began working at the task force, a D.E.A. special agent named William Cambre stopped by his office. Cambre, a Louisiana native who had worked drug cases at the D.E.A. for more than fifteen years, told him that he had discovered troubling entries in the Helios database. They were labelled as having been submitted by the F.B.I., based on unclassified sources and methods, but they contained G.P.S. coördinates that were updated with unusual frequency. The entries were marked “secret/noforn,” a classification level that prevents disclosure to foreign nationals. Intelligence and law-enforcement officials later told me that the information came from a C.I.A. special-access program, one of the highest categories of classification in the government. The program, which one intelligence official described to me as “inherently extra-sensitive,” involved national-security surveillance. It also captured information that was unrelated to its mission but useful for finding drug traffickers. Cambre told McConnell that the F.B.I. had refused to answer questions about the source of the information, which he believed came from “the Christians”—slang for the C.I.A. “This is what they’re writing in Helios,” Cambre told him. “It’s a lie.” (An F.B.I. spokesperson said that the Bureau reviewed the arrangement with the C.I.A. and considered it “consistent with our internal protocols and legal requirements.”)