When Nancy Kusen told Pentagon officials that a defense contractor may have been ripping off the government, she thought the Pentagon would keep her name out of the investigation. Defense officials ignored her tips for nearly five years and then revealed her name to the company she fingered.

After Kusen, a contract officer for the Pentagon, reported the potential fraud, her performance ratings dropped and she was denied a promotion.

Such is the treatment federal employees get when they dare to do the right thing.

Every federal department has hot lines for government whistle-blowers to report wrongdoing. But the hot lines aren't so hot. Congressional investigators have discovered there are enough problems with the system to discourage honest federal workers. Our associate Scott Sleek has seen the results of their investigation.

The hot lines are often unstaffed. If someone does answer, the complaint may be ignored. Some hot line numbers are unpublished or out of service. And the bottom line is, federal employees are afraid to call them. They don't trust the confidentiality of the system, and they worry about their own jobs.

The problems don't bode well for President Bush, who promised to restore integrity to the government. The taxpayers have been fleeced by contract fraud at the Pentagon, political payoffs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and negligence by savings and loan regulators.

A Senate subcommittee headed by Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) has been probing the hot line system and putting William Diefenderfer under the lights. As chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, Diefenderfer is supposed to oversee the hot lines.

He told the subcommittee he is worried that federal workers don't trust their superiors enough to report wrongdoing. If Diefenderfer wants to enhance the credibility of the hot lines, he should start in his own office.

The President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency publishes an annual listing of all government fraud hot lines. We called one -- the Office of Management and Budget hot line. We let it ring more than 20 times, and the person who finally answered told us we had reached a locker room at the White House. That's not very reassuring to a nervous OMB employee with a confidential story to whisper.

There is a Whistle-Blower Protection Act. It is supposed to shield federal employees from retribution. But it's still hard to find a whistle-blower who didn't get a kick in the pants for doing his or her duty.

We have reported on many of the victims, including a Navy engineer fired for reporting a costly flaw in a $5.6 million submarine sonar device and a Food and Drug Administration scientist who lost his job after he challenged the approval of a controversial growth hormone for cattle.

If Bush is serious about restoring credibility to the federal government, he should protect the army of people who are just waiting to help him do that.