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Intelligence whistle-blower presses his case

Lyndsey Layton Washington Post

WASHINGTON – 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 this 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.

In 1989, Barlow became the first intelligence officer for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, charged with analyzing nuclear weapons developments involving foreign governments.

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 suggested that Congress had been misled to Brubaker, Rostow and Michael MacMurray, the Pakistan desk officer in charge of military sales to Pakistan who prepared Hughes’s testimony.

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) … 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.”

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.

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 cell phone 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,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization that investigates and exposes corruption. “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.”

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