In EPIX’s new noir drama Berlin Station, a manhunt is underway. But this is no average mole hunt spy thriller–the agency is after a whistleblower in its own house. Inspired by the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaks, Berlin Station is notable for its foreign locale and modern notions of sexuality and gender. An investigator, Daniel Miller (Richard Armitage), is dispatched to the Berlin CIA station to find the identity of Thomas Shaw, the whistleblowing source of leaked documents that have damaged U.S.-Germany relations.
“There is a mole in the CIA–we need you in Berlin,” Miller is told. “No one can know why you’re there; not the Chief, not his deputies, not a soul.”
Like most series these days, Berlin Station is gorgeously shot. Every shadow is lovingly crafted in classic noir fashion, but it has an otherwise modern visual atmosphere. It’s inspired by the John le Carré spy thrillers of old, but is clearly not beholden to them with contemporary topics of whistleblowing–with its various motivations and questions of ethics–and the complex identities (sexual and otherwise) of its case officers.
To get an idea of just how a whistleblower hunt would play out within the CIA, we sought out former agency case officers Robert Baer, known for his intelligence work in the Middle East. Baer says that although the series calls the search for Thomas Shaw a “mole hunt,” this is not the term given to whistleblowers by the CIA.
“A whistleblower is, properly speaking, not a spy but someone who has gone to the press,” says Baer. “The CIA punishes them differently than a double agent. It’s part of counter-intelligence, but it’s not called a ‘mole hunt’ in the agency. We never called them a mole. A mole is someone who has gone over to the enemy. A lot of CIA agents go to press and give up something that isn’t even significant.”
If documents were leaked out of a CIA station, Baer says the agency would read first the documents to confirm they emanated from the agency. The investigation would then begin in earnest, with the CIA typically bringing in the FBI and Justice Department for support.
Specific documents are a lot easier to pinpoint as far as sources. If this were the case, the CIA’s counter-intelligence unit would begin narrowing down who within the given station had access to the leaked documents. If CIA or NSA cables were distributed worldwide, for instance, investigators would have to look into exactly where they were viewed via metadata. The investigating officers would narrow it down to this set of individuals, then branch out the case from there.
“They would start polygraphs in the station where they think the leak originated,” says Baer. “They would ask, ‘Have you had any contact with the Washington Post?’ They would check phone records and tap phone lines from inside the building, and would have the FBI investigate private cell phone records. And once there were suspects they would be removed from security clearance.”
“You’re looking for timelines, and you’re looking at information that you know is being leaked, and you try to associate that with a single person,” Baer explains. “We used to call these ‘matrices.’ If you know a secret was leaked from a case in Colombia on certain days, you’d simply check the travel from flights to and from Washington and Colombia. It’s that simple.”
A whistleblower’s motivation might also be financial, but rarely is this the case. Even so, investigators might look into the suspects’ bank accounts, checking for spikes in income or money problems.
“You get deeper and deeper, then you start lining up all of these things,” says Baer. “Today, they call it data visualization. If a CIA officer goes out and buy a Range Rover for my wife–are you kidding? You’re making $80,000 per year, there is something the matter. But, again, it’s never that obvious.”
“Once you get to the point where you think you’ve got your [whistleblower], you do a break-in to his or her house,” he adds. “You get into his hard drive on his computer, tap his phones, put him under surveillance. You put a beacon on his car to find out where they go to find strange patterns.”
The Agency would also ask the Justice Department to execute a warrant to wiretap private phones and look at external phone records. Knowing that a trained CIA officer and smart whistleblower wouldn’t likely be using phones to communicate with a newspaper or website, they would begin following the suspect or suspects around discreetly, watching where they go and with whom they are meeting.
Baer cautions that with enough time a professional CIA officer-turned-whistleblower would be able to “kick off” surveillance. Investigators would therefore have to be patient so that wouldn’t don’t tip off the suspects. But there are situations where the task of investigating a whistleblower wouldn’t be so easy.
“If you’re a whistleblower, you will know how the CIA works,” says Baer. “They would know that you can’t simply have leaks coming out of Berlin station because it instantly narrows it down to, say, 30 people. And so [investigators] would just start narrowing it down to who reads all of the files presumably.”
Baer says a whistleblower’s leaked information might then come from various parts of the world. This professional would be able to, as Baer says, “break down the agency’s walls of compartmentalization so he doesn’t leave fingerprints.”
“Inside intelligence agencies it’s like an echo chamber,” he says. “You pick stuff up and you could get somebody to give you a document that you wouldn’t normally have access to. That makes the [investigation] a lot harder,” though not impossible.
“If you had money you could leak documents pretty easily,” Baer adds while imagining a real world whistleblowing parallel to Berlin Station, where the whistleblower remains in the CIA even after leaking documents, attempting to remain undetected. “Most criminals are caught because they’re stupid. If you want to get away with murder and you take the precautions, you can get away with it. With money, motivational knowledge of compartmentalization, a whistleblower could evade counter-surveillance.”
On balance, however, whistleblowers aren’t able to hide long, as is this case in Berlin Station. Eventually they are outed or, in the case of NSA contractor Edward Snowden, they out themselves. But if they don’t out themselves, the whistleblower would be presented with the evidence against them and interrogated.
“The [CIA’s Office of Security] would call the guy to a building near Tysons Corner [Communications Tower], take him into a windowless room, and lash him up to a polygraph,” Baer explains. “If he confesses, the FBI shows up.”
Confession or not, the whistleblower will face Justice Department prosecution for leaking documents to the press. And, unless the agency drops charges, the whistleblower will face significant prison time under the Espionage Act.
CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, convicted for sharing defense information with New York Times reporter James Risen, was sentenced to 42 months in jail. Former CIA agent John Kiriakou did two and half years for providing reporters with the names of two fellow agents who waterboarded detainees. Kiriakou’s whistleblowing of enhanced interrogation techniques, in particular, also seems to have influenced the motivations and ethics of the leaks in Berlin Station.
Baer admits that this sort of discussion of whistleblowing, though it unfolds within popular entertainment, is a positive thing.
“The [whistleblower] hunt in Berlin Station is good because this show has a lot to do with enhanced interrogation and torture,” he adds. “People who have been tortured show up, people who torture are there.”
Like the cases of Sterling and Kiriakou, Berlin Station shows the complexities of how the CIA and, indeed, other government agencies deal with whistleblowing. How operational security must be balanced against the public’s need to know of not so savory intelligence gathering techniques. Served up, of course, with a healthy dose of noir thriller action.