The Fed Who Blew the Whistle

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(Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said the department had no comment on any aspect of this story. Lichtblau said, "I don't discuss the identities of confidential sources … Nearly a dozen people whom we interviewed agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity because of serious concerns about the legality and oversight of the secret program." Risen had no comment.)

Still, Tamm is haunted by the consequences of what he did—and what could yet happen to him. He is no longer employed at Justice and has been struggling to make a living practicing law. He does occasional work for a local public defender's office, handles a few wills and estates—and is more than $30,000 in debt. (To cover legal costs, he recently set up a defense fund.) He says he has suffered from depression. He also realizes he made what he calls "stupid" mistakes along the way, including sending out a seemingly innocuous but fateful e-mail from his Justice Department computer that may have first put the FBI on his scent. Soft-spoken and self-effacing, Tamm has an impish smile and a wry sense of humor. "I guess I'm not a very good criminal," he jokes.

At times during his interviews with NEWSWEEK, Tamm would stare into space for minutes, silently wrestling with how to answer questions. One of the most difficult concerned the personal ramifications of his choice. "I didn't think through what this could do to my family," he says.

Tamm's story is in part a cautionary tale about the perils that can face all whistleblowers, especially those involved in national-security programs. Some Americans will view him as a hero who (like Daniel Ellsberg and perhaps Mark Felt, the FBI official since identified as Deep Throat) risked his career and livelihood to expose wrongdoing at the highest levels of government. Others—including some of his former colleagues—will deride Tamm as a renegade who took the law into his own hands and violated solemn obligations to protect the nation's secrets. "You can't have runoffs deciding they're going to be the white knight and running to the press," says Frances Fragos Townsend, who once headed the unit where Tamm worked and later served as President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser. Townsend made clear that she had no knowledge of Tamm's particular case, but added: "There are legal processes in place [for whistle-blowers' complaints]. This is one where I'm a hawk. It offends me, and I find it incredibly dangerous."

Tamm understands that some will see his conduct as "treasonous." But still, he says he has few regrets. If he hadn't made his phone call to the Times, he believes, it's possible the public would never have learned about the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program. "I don't really need anybody to feel sorry for me," he wrote in a recent e-mail to NEWSWEEK. "I chose what I did. I believed in what I did."

If the government were drawing up a profile of a national-security leaker, Tamm would seem one of the least likely suspects. He grew up in the shadow of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Tamm's uncle, Edward Tamm, was an important figure in the bureau's history. He was once a top aide to Hoover and regularly briefed President Franklin Roosevelt on domestic intelligence matters. He's credited in some bureau histories with inventing (in 1935) not only the bureau's name, but its official motto: Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity. Tamm's father, Quinn Tamm, was also a high-ranking bureau official. He too was an assistant FBI director under Hoover, and at one time he headed up the bureau's crime lab. Tamm's mother, Ora Belle Tamm, was a secretary at the FBI's identification division.

When Thomas Tamm was a toddler, he crawled around Hoover's desk during FBI ceremonies. (He still remembers his mother fretting that his father might get in trouble for it.) As an 8-year-old, Tamm and his family watched John F. Kennedy's Inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from the balcony of Hoover's office, then located at the Justice Department.

Tamm's brother also served for years as an FBI agent and later worked as an investigator for the 9/11 Commission. (He now works for a private consulting firm.) Tamm himself, after graduating from Brown University in 1974 and Georgetown Law three years later, chose a different path in law enforcement. He joined the state's attorney's office in Montgomery County, Md. (He was also, for a while, the chairman of the county chapter of the Young Republicans.) Tamm eventually became a senior trial attorney responsible for prosecuting murder, kidnapping and sexual-assault cases. Andrew Sonner, the Democratic state's attorney at the time, says that Tamm was an unusually gifted prosecutor who knew how to connect with juries, in part by "telling tales" that explained his case in a way that ordinary people could understand. "He was about as good before a jury as anybody that ever worked for me," says Sonner, who later served as an appellate judge in Maryland.


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Member Comments

  • Posted By: whatisreal? @ 12/16/2008 7:38:12 PM

    That is so cool, I hope it is great for you and your family!

  • Posted By: whatisreal? @ 12/16/2008 7:37:04 PM

    I doubt his goal was to embarass Bush. I think he wanted to expose what was going on, and if that does anything to enhance terroism as some on here suggest than Bush is even mopre incompetent than I thought. Any time somebody questions Bush is about his "war on terror", his supporters use teh fear card, use the "you are helping the terrorists" as if the terrorists are really that stupid, or the questioner of Bush's policies. It is an insult to hear that kind of response.

  • Posted By: whatisreal? @ 12/16/2008 7:31:26 PM

    Yellow cake? WMDs?

    If your bar is set that low that is your issue. But then again the GOP is out there looking for a reason, and it is staring them in the face. If you accept that in your leaders, your issue. I for one appreciate a competent leader, and respect it, especially accountability.

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