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Top-Secret World Loses Blogger

by Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, Jul. 24, 2006 at 5:52 AM

CIA Contractor Is Fired When Internal Post Crosses the Line

By Dana Priest

Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, July 21, 2006; A15

Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it.

Only people with top-secret security clearances could read her musings, which were posted on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified intranet. Writing as Covert Communications, CC for short, she opined in her online journal on such national security conundrums as stagflation, the war of ideas in the Middle East and -- in her most popular post -- bad food in the CIA cafeteria.

But the hundreds of blog readers who responded to her irreverent entries with titles such as "Morale Equals Food" won't be joining her ever again.

On July 13, after she posted her views on torture and the Geneva Conventions, her blog was taken down and her security badge was revoked. On Monday, Axsmith was terminated by her employer, BAE Systems, which was helping the CIA test software.

As a traveler in the classified blogosphere, Axsmith was not alone. Hundreds of blog posts appear on Intelink. The CIA says blogs and other electronic tools are used by people working on the same issue to exchange information and ideas.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment on Axsmith's case but said the policy on blogs is that "postings should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the site, and that managers should be informed of online projects that use government resources. CIA expects contractors to do the work they are paid to do."

A BAE Systems spokesman declined to comment.

Axsmith, 42, said in an interview this week that she thinks of herself as the Erma Bombeck of the intel world, a "generalist" writing about lunch meat one day, the war on terrorism the next. She said she first posted her classified blog in May and no one said a thing. When she asked, managers even agreed to give her the statistics on how many people were entering the site. Her column on food pulled in 890 readers, and people sent her reviews from other intelligence agency canteens.

The day of the last post, Axsmith said, after reading a newspaper report that the CIA would join the rest of the U.S. government in according Geneva Conventions rights to prisoners, she posted her views on the subject.

It started, she said, something like this: "Waterboarding is Torture and Torture is Wrong."

And it continued, she added, with something like this: "CC had the sad occasion to read interrogation transcripts in an assignment that should not be made public. And, let's just say, European lives were not saved." (That was a jab at Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to Europe late last year when she defended U.S. policy on secret detentions and interrogations.) A self-described "opinionated loudmouth with a knack for writing a catchy headline," Axsmith also wrote how it was important to "empower grunts and paper pushers" because, she explained in the interview, "I'm a big believer in educating people at the bottom, and that's how you strengthen an infrastructure."

In her job as a contractor at the CIA's software-development shop, Axsmith said, she conducted "performance and stress testing" on computer programs, and that as a computer engineer she had nothing to do with interrogations. She said she did read some interrogation-related reports while performing her job as a trainer in one counterterrorism office.

Her opinion, Axsmith added, was based on newspaper reports of torture and waterboarding as an interrogation method used to induce prisoners to cooperate.

"I thought it would be okay" to write about the Geneva Conventions, she said, "because it's the policy."

In recounting the events of her last day as an Intelink blogger, Axsmith said that she didn't hold up well when the corporate security officers grilled her, seized her badge and put her in a frigid conference room. "I'm shaking. I'm cold, staring at the wall," she recalled. "And worse, people are using the room as a shortcut, so I have no dignity in this crisis."

She said BAE officials told her that the blog implied a specific knowledge of interrogations and that it worried "the seventh floor" at CIA, where the offices of the director and his management team are.

She said she apologized right away and figured she would get reprimanded and her blog would be eliminated. She never dreamed she would be fired. Now, Axsmith said, "I'm scared, terrified really" of being criminally prosecuted for unauthorized use of a government computer system, something one of the security officers mentioned to her.

Axsmith said she's proud of having taken her views public -- well, sort of. "I know I hit the radar and it was amplified," she said. "I think I've had an impact."

In the meantime, she's been thinking about Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, the Navy lawyer who successfully challenged the constitutionality of military tribunals at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

The National Law Journal named Swift one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the country, but the Navy has so far passed him over for promotion. He told the Los Angeles Times then, "One thing that has been a great revelation for me is that you may love the military, but it doesn't necessarily love you."

"That's how I feel," Axsmith said, recalling what Swift said. "I love the CIA. I love the mission. I love the people. It's such a great place to work."

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