Congress set to pass new protections for whistleblowers
Following the latest baring of U.S. secrets on the Internet, Congress is poised to pass legislation giving employees in the most sensitive government jobs a way to report corruption, waste and mismanagement without turning to outside groups such as WikiLeaks.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill, which is viewed by supporters as a way to discourage illegal leaks of classified information by giving intelligence agency whistleblowers a means to raise concerns within their organizations.
Without protections spelled out in law, whistleblowers risk being fired or demoted for informing their chains of command about misconduct, according to Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project.
That leaves no alternative to anonymous - and potentially damaging - leaks unless whistleblowers are willing to jeopardize their careers, he said.
"Until this law is passed, WikiLeaks will continue to be the safest option for whistleblowers unwilling to engage in professional suicide," said Devine, who is coordinating support for the bill from a coalition of more than 60 public interest and advocacy groups.
The Senate is expected to approve the bill this week and send it to the House, where Democrats are planning to pass it quickly.
In an e-mailed statement, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the bill "landmark legislation" that the Obama administration hopes "will be passed promptly."
The bill would not protect WikiLeaks or anyone who improperly reveals sensitive information. On Sunday, WikiLeaks, which uses the Internet to expose government secrets, released thousands of classified State Department documents, leaving federal officials fuming and scrambling to contain the damage.
No one has been charged with passing the diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. But suspicion is focused on Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, an intelligence analyst arrested in Iraq in June and charged in relation to an earlier leak. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday that the Justice Department will prosecute anyone found to have violated U.S. law by giving government documents to WikiLeaks.
The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act would bar workplace reprisals against employees at the CIA and other intelligence agencies who told their superiors about illegal activities, abuses of authority and dangers to public health or safety, according to a draft of the legislation.
The bill would also require the director of national intelligence to set up a special review board to resolve cases involving whistleblowers who believed their security clearances were suspended or revoked as punishment for speaking out. This would be the first time that employees with clearances could dispute an agency's decision regarding access to classified information.
It would also give expanded whistleblower protections to civil service employees outside the intelligence agencies, including thousands of Transportation Security Administration baggage-screeners and headquarters staff. The rights would extend to employees who challenge the censorship or misrepresentation of federal research.
Whistleblowers outside the intelligence agencies would be able to seek a jury trial in federal court to appeal dismissals or demotions. An earlier version of a House bill would have extended this provision to intelligence employees, but Obama administration officials objected, arguing that classified information would be compromised if these cases were heard outside a classified setting.
In a bid to draw attention to the risks whistleblowers face, Devine's organization prepared a report detailing the ordeals of 12 government officials whose employers sought "to enforce secrecy though repression."
Among them is Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official who reported "massive fraud, waste and abuse" in surveillance programs to the NSA inspector general's office.
Drake's reward, according to the report, was an indictment in April under the Espionage Act for allegedly making unauthorized contact with a newspaper reporter after he had exhausted all other means for disclosing the problems he witnessed.
- Associated Press