A Russian propaganda news organization, Sputnik News, broke this storylast week. Obviously, Russia has a vested interest in exposing the weaknesses of our political system. Then again, all Americans benefit from transparency and this was a story that virtually no American news outlet covered properly.
The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations listened to testimony about the effectiveness of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which went into effect five years ago. The committee questioned Robert Storch, the Deputy Inspector General and Whistleblower Ombudsman of the DOJ. Also, representatives from two non-profit whistleblower organizations, Elizabeth Hempowicz (Counsel for the Project on Government Oversight) and Tom Devine (Director of the Government Accountability Project) stressed the importance of providing transparency and protection for whistleblowers.
However, Sputnik News picked up on this alarming exchange between Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA) and Eric Bachman, the Deputy Special Counsel for Litigation and Legal Affairs of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC). Federal whistleblowers can send information about potential government waste, fraud, and abuse to the OSC. The OSC also collects reports from whistleblowers who claim to have faced Retaliation for reporting such conduct.
Representative Blum asked Bachman how many whistleblowers contacted their agency and how many allegedly faced retaliation. Bachman replied that there were six-thousand federal whistleblowers last year and two-thousand of them allegedly faced retaliation. Almost every one of these cases of retaliation came from one of the whistleblower’s supervisors. Bachman estimated that of those 2,000 cases of alleged retaliation, their agency was able to gain favorable outcomes in 200 cases. Worst of all, both Blum and Bachman agree that the people who commit these retaliatory acts, in most cases, are rarely held accountable. In fact, they often receive promotions.
Bachman’s testimony revealed both good and bad news. As a result of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, more government employees are reporting acts of waste, fraud, and abuse. Due to this increased transparency, there is more accountability. Bachman mentioned the Veterans Health Administration (VA) had over 40 supervisors who were disciplined for wrongdoing via whistleblower reports.
However, some agencies have been particularly vengeful. For instance, the OSC received 243 complaints of whistleblower retaliation from employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) since December of 2012. Far more progress needs to be made to prevent whistleblower retaliation when 1 out of 3 allege that they’ve faced negative repercussions for merely doing their civic duty. We need a system that protects the public interest, not the bureaucracy. The formal process for reporting acts of government wrongdoing has been corrupted. This a vital service that is necessary for the future of our country. Hence, some government employees have found that there is no other recourse other than to contact the media.
Look at what has happened with the intelligence community. The Obama administration prosecuted eight whistleblowers with the Espionage Act. The most egregious of those cases of whistleblower retaliation involved a former high-level NSA official, Thomas Drake. He, along with three other top NSA officials (Bill Binney, Kirk Weibe, and Ed Loomis), exhausted the formal process for reporting wrongdoing to no avail. In the end, all four had their homes raided by the FBI. However, only Drake was charged with violating the Espionage Act because he provided the government with copies of various documents. With that said, the documents he provided were available in the public domain; the government decided to mark those documents as “classified” after raiding his home. Ultimately, this witch-hunt fell flat and the government dropped the charges against Drake as long he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of improper use of a government computer.
Of the eight whistleblowers charged under the Espionage Act, Edward Snowden is the only other person to not serve time in prison and that’s because he fled the country. Most media coverage has centered on the debate over whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. However, few news outlets have truly examined the actual whistleblower process.
The former NSA Inspector General claimed that he would have protected Edward Snowden’s rights. However, Ellard was terminatedlast year due to retaliating against a different whistleblower. Hence, Thomas Drake, and his three fellow NSA colleagues (Bill Binney, Kirk Weibe, and Ed Loomis), told PBS Frontline that they feltSnowden’s actions were appropriate due to the government’s atrocious record with protecting whistleblowers.
This process needs to be corrected immediately. After all, transparency is clearly at the bottom of priorities for the new Trump administration that began issuing federal gag orderswithin the first week. Trump is more concerned with projecting an image of strong national security and law & order, not constitutional governance. Consequently, there will likely be various federal whistleblowers who choose to skip the formal process due to fears of retribution. Therefore, we may face situations with far worse security breaches than what happened with the Snowden leaks.
In a telling moment, Trump joked about “destroying the career” of a Texas official who wanted to overturn civil asset forfeiture, which allows the police to seize people’s assets without filing criminal charges. Civil asset forfeiture is opposedby 84% of Americans. Nonetheless, Trump was willing to offer such unflinching support for law enforcement even though he was completely unfamiliarwith this issue and the resulting civil liberties implications. Needless to say, that was a very ominous sign of things to come.