Fired CIA contractor’s road to reinvention

It’s been 12 years since Christine Axsmith was fired from her job as a BAE software contractor for the CIA, but she remembers every detail of that day as if it were yesterday. She can still feel the cold, frigid conference room and how scared she was during questioning by three security officers.

Axsmith was there because she posted her views on torture on a top-secret internal government blog. She wrote that “waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong,” and made a reference to the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees.

Before that fateful day, Axsmith posted irreverent ruminations about a range of national security issues under the nom de plume “Covert Communications.” She’d been writing for about two months and, by far, her most popular post was about how bad the food in the CIA cafeteria was.

This time, however, she had struck a nerve. According to the “three levels” of BAE managers who interviewed her, the blog had rattled the “seventh floor,” where the CIA Director and his management team were located. They worried about how she obtained specific knowledge about interrogations, even though it had nothing to do with her job.

Though Axsmith had read some interrogation-related reports while working as a trainer in a counterterrorism office, most of her opinions for the post were based on newspaper accounts of torture and waterboarding. And she also was aware of the “vicious disagreement within the agency about torture.”

She describes the security officers who interviewed her as “really mad initially.” They threatened her with criminal prosecution for unauthorized use of a government computer system and continued to grill her. The tenor changed once she answered yes when asked if she wrote the blog. They thanked her for her honesty. “What was I going to do, lie?” she laughs. After apologizing, she assumed that she would be formally reprimanded, and her blog would be eliminated. She didn’t expect to be fired. When it happened, she knew her “career was flat out over.”

Axsmith’s clearance was never taken away, and she is still under permanent investigation. “They put a checkmark against my name, which means I could never get another intelligence job,” she says. “For them, it’s better that they don’t make a decision so that I can’t appeal it.”

It was an emotional path for her after what she refers to as “the incident.” She says there was a lot of self-recrimination. “You pay a social cost because anyone you’ve ever worked with wants nothing to do with you. It’s personally painful.”

Axsmith was able to begin moving on when she figured out a way to reinvent herself. She started a successful dog walking service not long after and was able to pay off the mortgage on a six-bedroom house. “It wasn’t where I was before, but I was happy.”

A year later, in 2007, she began practicing elder law and was appointed to the Fiduciary Panel for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to represent the elderly and disabled. Eventually, she went on to practice foreclosure litigation. Now she’s a full-time legal document reviewer, which she says is like “being a temporary typist for a lawyer. It’s the lowest rung.” But she’s enjoying it. “I love to absorb a large amount of information and categorize it.”

Axsmith considers herself a Renaissance woman. She writes, and two of her books have been published, “$uccess Without College – Roadmap to Software Developer” and “$uccess Without College – Roadmap to Plumber.” She’s submitted article queries into a knitting magazine because she’s an avid knitter, and also makes soap, using only pure ingredients, which she gives to relatives.

“I’ve had the opportunity to live many experiences, which has meant a lot to me,” Axsmith says. She thinks about what happened to her as having been “embroiled in a scandal,” even though she knows it really wasn’t a scandal. “When I think of it as a soap opera, it helped me to process what happened,” she says. “You can always come back from a scandal — just like you can always come back from whistleblowing.”