At a Labor Day rally held yesterday in Cincinnati, Ohio, President Barack Obama told the story about his visit to Greenwood, South Carolina in the presidential primary campaign. Not realizing the remote location of Greenwood, President Obama agreed to visit that small southern town in exchange for the primary endorsement of a South Carolina state legislator.
Having forgotten about his promise, on his next trip to South Carolina Mr. Obama was tapped on the shoulder by a campaign staffer who informed the Senator that he needed to wake up early the next morning.
Mr. Obama asked why? “Because you need to be in the car at 6:30am so we can go to Greenwood like you promised,” the staffer replied.
Upon arriving at Greenwood, the future president was disappointed by the size of the small crowd of about 20 people, but that small crowd proved to be a turning point in his campaign when Mr. Obama was greeted by a Greenwood city council member, who started chanting, “Fired, Up? Ready to Go!”
By keeping a promise, Mr. Obama by happenstance found his voice in the primaries and his campaign was re-energized all the way to the White House after adopting that chant.
It is now time for Mr. Obama to keep another promise he made during the campaign.
In May of 2007, Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign promised America's whistleblowers in writing that he stood behind their need for legal protection and fully supported federal court access and jury trials for all federal employees.
The House of Representatives enacted these protections when it overwhelmingly passed H.R. 985 in a veto-proof, bipartisan manner, and again when it added these provisions to the stimulus bill. However, both times the Senate failed to pass or agree to the strong protections twice enacted by the House.
This year, in another bipartisan effort, Representatives Van Hollen (D-MD), Waxman (D-CA), Towns (D-NY), Braley (D-IA), and Platts (R-PA) have reintroduced this bill as H.R.1507.
While the House version of the bill is more inclusive, the Senate version, S. 372, lacks many key protections. The Senate bill currently lacks coverage for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees who participate in the global war on terror and oversee a budget well over $150 billion.
One reason typically cited for denying court access for all federal employees is the claim that it could create a national security risk. However, this is not true. In an objective and independent review, the General Accounting Office (GAO) saw "no justification for treating employees at [intelligence] agencies differently from employees at other federal agencies except in rare national security cases." There is nothing in H.R. 1507 that would permit a whistleblower to reveal national security secrets to the media or the courts, yet misinformation about extending full due process protections to national security whistleblowers is still pervasive today. The GAO’s findings demonstrate these claims of risks to national security are a myth.
Recent revelations in the news media of numerous scandals involving the intelligence agencies (such as CIA assassinations, detainee abuse and torture and illegal wiretapping) once again show that the need to provide strong protections to all federal employees who blow the whistle has never been greater. Had the real whistleblower protections contained in H.R. 1507 been in place it is unlikely that information about illegal wiretapping and assassinations would have been withheld from Congress. However, by enforcing the code of silence upon FBI and intelligence employees and by failing to provide for strong anti-retaliation provisions for national security whistleblowers, the timely reporting of illegal conduct to appropriate law enforcement authorities and to Congress was prevented and the wrongdoing continued.
It is time for Congress to enact a true whistleblower protection act for national security and FBI employees that provides for court access and jury trials, as does H.R. 1507, so that FBI and intelligence agency employees do not have to choose between keeping silent and risking their livelihoods when they witness illegal conduct committed by their agencies.
The Senate bill also contains weaker provisions and fails to effectively extend court access and jury trials to protect federal employees who work outside the area of national security or intelligence.
For example, Bunnatine Greenhouse, who was the highest ranking civilian contracting officer in the Army Corps of Engineers when she blew the whistle on Iraq contracting misconduct, has noted that she would not be entitled to a jury trial in federal court under the Senate bill. Read Bunny Greenhouse's Letter.
In these times of record government spending, all federal employees, including those who work at the FBI and the intelligence agencies, need to be protected by a strong whistleblower law that includes the right to court access and jury trials. Study after study has shown that strong protections from retaliation are what encourage employees to report fraud and other misconduct.
Who is going to tap President Obama on the shoulder again and remind him that he needs to keep his promise to America’s whistleblowers too?