The Anatomy of the Perfect Whistle-Blower

He was Charles M. Smith, the Army contract manager of the KBR LOGCAP III contract. Charlie, as he is known to me now, was a 26-year civilian government contract manager for the Army who decided that KBR was ripping off the government and wasting money that could be used elsewhere in the war effort, to buy better protective gear and equipment for the troops. On that fateful day in August 2004, when he had his staff issue the letter to KBR to withhold payments and question $1 billion of suspect billings, the KBR representative told his staff that the letter would not stand. It was rescinded the same day, and Charlie found out that he had been relieved of his post when he attended a meeting on the matter the next day.

The Army made sure that the DCAA would not have another chance to rein in KBR and its money flow, and actually hired an outside firm to monitor KBR’s contract compliance. This move was a ridiculous privatization fix for a political privatization logistics disaster for the troops.

Charlie was transferred to a task force that was looking how to structure LOGCAP IV, the follow-on (the Army’s term for the next) contract on war services and supplies for the troops. Charlie was in the later stage of his career, and many civilian bureaucrats in his position would just have put their heads down and done their time to protect their retirement. But even though Charlie was smarting over the obvious retaliation and humiliation by his beloved Army command, he threw himself into structuring the new LOGCAP IV contract. He worked to have the contract require several contractors to compete for the work in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere so that the Army would never again be held hostage to one company again during wartime. He was successful in getting a potential competitive structure in place – only to have politics within the Army push to assign each company a guaranteed area and suppress competition. He also saw KBR, despite its continuing outrageous behavior of full payment and bonuses for shoddy services, keep the Iraq part of the contract into LOGCAP IV.

In February 2008, Charlie retired early, at age 61, because of pressure from the Army contracting bureaucracy where he had worked for 31 years. Many people who had gone through this type of betrayal would have walked away in anger and spent their retirement trying to forget the personal retaliation for trying to protect the troops. But Charlie, freed from the loyalty he felt during his government service, was just getting started. He tracked me down after reading my book, and I got to meet the man who stood against the entire Army command and the White House in an attempt to do the right thing.

I was working on a qui tam False Claims Act whistle-blower lawsuit against KBR, and he, for free, offered his insight and assistance. I was also advising various members of the Wartime Contracting Commission, a commission founded by Sens. Claire McCaskill and James Webb. This commission was looking at the waste of billions of dollars and the severe problems of privatizing so much of the war. I asked Charlie to come to Washington, DC, to talk to the commission and set it straight on what happens to the troops when a politically connected corporation gets a grip on the vital logistics support during a war. He gladly came and gave as much of his time as the commission wanted. Charlie did dabble in consulting for smaller contractors and giving his advice, but his heart was dedicated to trying to prevent the Army from continuing this charade against the welfare of the troops and the taxpayers.

In June 2008, Charlie got his day in the court of public opinion when James Risen of The New York Times wrote a story exposing the Army’s caving in to KBR on the contract. Charlie came out of the shadows and told his story. This action helped people to understand just how powerful KBR was against the Army and the troops’ own interests. However, it also guaranteed that Charlie would never get any lucrative offers for post-government employment. He wouldn’t be able to go through the revolving door to make lucrative post-government money from contractors. Several in his command who put him down did just that.

When I started this Solutions column for Truthout, I asked Charlie if he would co-write some columns with me and consider writing some guest columns. He wholeheartedly jumped at the chance, with no compensation. We had fun working together and having laughs at my heavy editing of his first column attempts, because he had a deep government writing accent. But Charlie was a quick study and swiftly learned to write for the average reader so that his work would not read like a government report. He volunteered to write on subjects beyond the military, including the rip-off of some private colleges and the freedom-of-press problems for journalist James Risen. Even when I became acting executive director for Truthout and dropped this column last year, I put him in touch with the editorial staff here and he kept writing about the wrongs he saw and how they might be fixed. You can find a full listing of his Truthout work here.

Writing for Truthout at my urging gave Charlie the inspiration that he could write a book about his experiences: a “lessons learned” manual for future contracting officials in the military. His book, War Contracting: Army Contracting vs. Supporting the Troops, is a mixture of a deep dive into military procurement and storytelling of how not to let politics imperil the needs of the troops. The book is one of his best legacies.

I contacted Charlie in January this year knowing that I would be resuming my column in a few months and asked him if he still wanted to work together and campaign for a better world. He immediately said yes and we spent another several calls outlining our next efforts. He and I were excited at making more jabs at the bad guys who self-deal in this world at the expense of the troops and the public at large. Charlie was always fun and energetic and never sank into bitterness on the unfairness of what was dealt him. I am not sure I could go through such a soul-crushing experience and come out of the other side with Charlie’s wit and humor. I have not seen such an ability in any other whistle-blower or source in my 30 years of work with whistle-blowers.

On January 30, I received a distressful email from Charlie’s daughter that Charlie had died from a sudden heart attack the day before. He was 65 years old, and I was blown back from the shock. While we never know how long we have to live, it is ironic that the people in the Army bureaucracy forced Charlie into early retirement, which allowed him to write his important book and spend time with the family he loved. The world has lost a truly cheerful soul. I have had many sources and whistle-blowers say that they would do the right thing if they thought they could get away with it. Charlie Smith did the right thing and didn’t get away with it. But he went on, despite the professional humiliation, to keep on fighting in other arenas, mostly for free, to continue to try to right wrongs and not to succumb to bitterness while many of the people who oppressed him went on to lucrative gigs from their own self-dealing while in government.

Was Charlie the perfect whistle-blower? Of course not; there is no such thing as perfect in this world. However, this unassuming man came the closest I have seen in my career to the ideal of what a whistle-blower should be.

So what solution can we get from his untimely death? There are others in our government who would like to be like Charlie but saw what happened to him and other whistle-blowers like him. We cannot have a decent and functional government without these people of good will, but not all are as strong as Charlie. Important whistle-blower protection, called the Whistle-blower Protection Enhancement Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in November 2012, but the House of Representatives stripped much of the protections for national security whistle-blowers before the law was signed. So we need to continue to pass more whistle-blower laws, especially in the area of national security employees.

However, laws are only as good as their enforcement and we have seen a distinct hostility in the federal government and their contractors to whistle-blowers lately, especially to whistle-blowers in the area of national security. The executive branch has been especially egregious to national security whistle-blowers who try to talk to the Congress and especially the media.

So we also must work, every day, through advocacy and exposés, to change the culture to make it safer for these people to come forward and harder for the self-dealers in government to silence them – and to get richly paid for this silencing after they leave the government. That will be my way of honoring this powerful man of great humility.