The president’s comments were part of a signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act. The law provides increased whistleblower protections for defense contractors. It also provides other government contractors and grantees similar whistleblower protections in a four-year pilot program.
Advocates have praised many Obama administration whistleblower initiatives, including a revitalized Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the relevant laws, and White House support for broad whistleblower protections. Yet the administration also has used the Espionage Act to prosecute federal employees who advocates consider whistleblowers but the Justice Department views as leakers of confidential information. And the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized for using electronic surveillance to spy on the personal e-mail accounts of whistleblowers.
The Defense law prohibits reprisals against those who report wrongdoing to Congress (and some other places, such as the offices of inspectors general).
Obama said he will interpret the law “to direct the heads of executive departments to supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the whistleblower protections, said she “was truly stunned,” by the president’s statement. “I’m really dumbfounded by it,” she said, because she had previously heard no objections from the White House. A news release from her office said the president’s statement “would make ineffective language” meant to protect whistleblowers.
Some advocates disagree with that, but they nonetheless don’t like Obama’s language.
“Congress did the right thing and passed these protections for contractor and grantee employees to save taxpayer dollars and increase government accountability,” said Angela Canterbury, public policy director for the Project On Government Oversight. “It may not have been his intent, but with this signing statement, the president appears to be thumbing his nose at Congress, whistleblowers, and taxpayers.”
It remains to be seen if implementation of the statement will be that serious.
Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors, said that it “likely won’t have a real impact on the implementation of the provision.”
The administration, he said, is less concerned with the whistleblower protections “than it is with giving whistleblowers the right or authority to report directly, even exclusively, to Congress, thus bypassing the agency.”
Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, called the White House statement “mere background noise that repeats timeless government boilerplate about executive branch powers.”