Nod to national security advances whistleblower protection bill

Sen. Charles E. Grassley
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Susan Walsh - AP)
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By Joe Davidson
Friday, August 27, 2010

Efforts to pass long-delayed legislation to strengthen federal whistleblower protections are heating up, now that an agreement in principle on how to treat government spies has been reached.

The concerns of intelligence and national security agencies have obstructed a bill that would provide protections for employees who expose waste, fraud or abuse in government programs.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, held up the legislation because of doubts expressed by agency officials. They worried that their operations might be compromised if staff members' complaints about retaliation for whistleblowing were aired in court.

The House has twice passed legislation that would allow federal employees to sue in open court agencies that retaliate against them for exposing improper actions or policies.

But the Senate balked at the court provision for national security workers.

Under a tentative scenario being negotiated by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), claims of retaliation against national security workers would be handled administratively, rather than in court. It would be up to the Obama administration to draw up the procedures.

"We have been working to provide whistleblower protections in a similar manner to employees of the FBI," Grassley said. "We hope to have an agreement soon that can be presented to the full Senate for consideration."

The FBI procedures, however, don't fully please all advocates for stronger whistleblower rights.

The administrative remedy raises a point of contention. Some whistleblower advocates prefer a structure that does not force whistleblowers to have their cases heard by an arm of the same agency they complained about. One option would be legislative language that instructs the Obama administration to make strong due-process rights part of the administrative process.

Nonetheless, the advocates are cautiously optimistic about the progress that has been made in a nearly decade-long effort to strengthen whistleblower protections.

"We're excited that there has been a good-faith commitment and a marathon of hard work to get this reform completed," said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project. "The jury is out on whether the effort will succeed."

There are good signs, however. The White House and congressional Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that whistleblowers need greater protection.

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