May 02, 2005

Names will be named if protections aren’t strengthened


A group of whistleblowers is threatening to blow more whistles if Congress does not soon strengthen protections against retaliation.

Sibel Edmonds, a former contract translator for the FBI, said in an April 28 press conference with the National Security Whistleblower Coalition that whistleblower protections are riddled with loopholes and do nothing to deter retaliation.

Edmonds said that if Congress does not act in two to three months to toughen those protections — by criminalizing whistleblower retaliation and allowing whistleblowers to sue retaliators and agencies that do not provide enough protection — the coalition will publicly name officials who have been found by inspectors general or Congress to have acted illegally or unethically, yet remain in their jobs or were promoted.

“They’re allowing wrongdoers to hide behind the walls of these agencies,” Edmonds said. “This has to change. If they don’t start fixing this broken system, we will.”

The 54-person coalition, made up of federal employees who have warned superiors, lawmakers and the public about wrongdoing at their agencies, was formed last summer. It counts among its members former FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who gained fame after detailing management obstructions that hindered an investigation of a Sept. 11, 2001, conspirator before the attacks; former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers; and Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand Corp. analyst who in 1971 leaked to the press the so-called “Pentagon papers.”

Edmonds said she is glad the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 13 approved a bill that would strengthen whistleblower protections and give employees new disclosure and appeal rights, but said protections need to go further. The coalition wants retaliators to be held responsible for their actions, she said.

The bill approved by the Senate committee, S 494, would:

Prohibit managers from revoking whistleblowers’ security clearances; allow whistleblowers to appeal Merit Systems Protection Board decisions or orders to the U.S. Court of Appeals; protect employees who disclose information to authorized lawmakers or congressional staff; and allow the Office of Special Counsel to litigate cases on behalf of employees in court.

Rowley said she hopes Congress acts and her organization does not have to name names.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to get into less than constructive tactics,” Rowley said. “It’s not something you want to do, but what else can you do?”

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said the nation cannot have officials from agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI wondering if they will lose their jobs if they warn about weaknesses.

“These latter-day Paul Reveres, who take personal risk to warn the country of danger, are too often punished,” said Markey. “People are blackballed from getting other jobs, they go broke, and their lives are ruined.”

Markey said he is crafting a bill that would make retaliation a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Edmonds said the coalition will review Markey’s bill when the draft is complete.

Danielle Brian, director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said at the conference her organization wants to support Markey’s legislation.

An April 28 report from POGO said that whistleblower protections are more important than ever since Sept. 11. The report said that almost 50 percent more people each year are seeking protection from the Office of Special Counsel. And retaliation remains a problem, POGO said.

The Interior Department fired Chambers last June after she spoke to the press in 2003 about Park Police budget shortfalls.

The Government Accountability Office said in September that former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Thomas Scully, threatened to fire chief actuary Richard Foster if he told members of Congress and their staffs what the prescription drug legislation under consideration in 2003 would cost.

And the Justice Department’s inspector general in January found that the FBI fired Edmonds in 2002 partly because she alleged to supervisors that a co-worker was engaging in espionage. Edmonds also alleged that the FBI’s language division intentionally slowed down translations so the office would appear short-staffed and obtain budget increases