They come to us under the vague, if catchy, name of "whistle blowers," and they are this season's political good guys. Whistle blowers are government employees who, at some risk of reprisal, step out of the bureaucratic shadows and tell all - usually to Congress or the press - concerning corruption, mismanagement and other forms of misbehavior in the agencies they work for. This idiomatic designation has even acquired a certain formal, official standing - "Testimony of Panel of Whistle Blowers" is the way a Senate committee report describes a recent excursion into the subject. Any by both statute and policy directive, attempts are now being made to get federal law on the whistle blowers' side, encouraging them to go public in the first place and protecting them from agency vengeance when they do.
It is worth mentioning that among the whistle-blowing panelists the Senate committee heard from were people who had made allegations of Air Force waste, General Services Administration corruption and National Institutes of Health approval of controversial and reportedly ineffective vaccines. All three of these were surely subjects deserving to be brought into the open if, in fact, high-level trimming and cover-up were involved. But ot say that is not to confirm the wisdom of the effort now under way to enshrine whistle blowing, in all its ambiguity and imprecision, as an absolute virtue. Hence, once again, I suspect, in a reaction to the Vietnam/Watergate/CIA complex of issues, we are letting a new enthusiasm get the better of memory and judgment.
Some of what is being done seems reasonable and desirable to me. For example, Philip Heymann, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division at Justice, has recently sent a directive to U.S. attorneys instructing them not to bring a certain kind of "theft of government information" prosecution against people who meet a variety of standards he has outlined for whistle blowers. Again, the president, in his original civil-service reform, set out - relatively modestly - to "safeguard the rights," as he said, "of federal employees who 'blow the whistle' on violations of laws or regulations . . ." But his suggested remedies were expanded by Congress, and to ponder the elaborate legislative outcome is at once to be faced with two nagging questions: Can this thing work? And, if it can, should it?
My reservations on practical grounds concern what strikes me as a basic mismatch between the steps intended to protect the whistle blower and the nature of the whistle blower himself. What the House and Senate propose, in somewhat different bills, is a kind of bureaucratic regularization of this very irregular whistle-blowing practice - complete with rules and regulations, conditions, hearing procedures, timetables, limits on what is covered and protected, and pounds, not to say tons, of paper and reporting to this one and that by such and such a date. I have no doubt it is well-intended and that it may in some cases even do a fair and efficient job. But whistle blowers seem, almost by definition, to be the kind of people for whom these fine points will be irrelevant.
I don't care whether we're talking about Whittaker Chambers or Daniel Ellsberg or any of the various whistle blowers on the left and on the right who have taken on their government peers and bosses on everything from nuclear safety to the purchase of GSA office supplies. To some extent in all these cases we are talking about people impelled to act by conscience, and in most of them we are talking about people who have become obsessive on the subject of their testimony, who view their conflict with policy in apocalyptic terms and who are half-right and half-wrong in a way that will resist a conclusive or orderly finding. It's rather as though Congress were trying to fit out the skunk at the garden party in a straw picture hat and a pair of little white gloves. It won't work.
And I don't think that's such a terrible thing.The term whistle blower, after all, covers an awful lot of disputed territory. Is it not true that one man's whistle blower is another man's informer . . . or faceless accuser . . . or malcontent . . . or disgruntled employee . . . or bad loser . . . or just plain sorehead? A whistle blower, if we are to be perfectly honest about it, is someone who exposes a government policy or practice or agency or official you don't like. When the sympathies work the other way around, the whistle blower tends to end up with one of those considerably less flattering names having mostly to do with a lack of gruntlement.
I am going to call a surprise witness here - one Otto Otepka, prototype of the newly honored and soon-to-be-protected whistle blower and scourge of many of those now fashioning the new whistle-blower laws. Otepka, for those lucky enough not to remember, was the State Department security evaluator who blew the whistle on what he considered loose, lax and dangerous security practices in the clearance of some Kennedy administration personnel. He shared his findings with the Senate internal security subcommittee. The State Department tried to fire him.
This reprisal only further inflamed his congressional protectors, including the late senator J. Glenn Beall of Maryland. What some of us saw as a last ugly spasm of McCarthyism in the State Department, Beall saw as a truly noble expression of what we should nowadays call whistle blowing. Hear him: "Every patriotic American is indebted to Mr. Otepka for his exposes, and instead of mistreatment he should be receiving the highest praise. If loyal Americans in our civil service are subject to such treatment for exposing un-American activities in government, then every person in the civil service has this threat hanging over his head." Substitute a current favorite's name for that of Otto Otepka and the passage could easily come out of this year's hearings.
I am sorry to say my recollections don't end there. In reaction to all this, some of us (I was one) raised the principle of executive-branch privacy and autonomy to the status of holy doctrine - more or less as is being done with its opposite, whistle blowing to Congress, now. We went beyond the reasonable concern that this early form of whistle blowing would unfairly damage reputations and demoralize government workers in the affected offices, and swept to an absolute and; frankly, preposterous conclusion about the rights and prerogatives of the executive branch.
Now the pack is tearing off down the field in the other direction. If you'll forgive me, I don't think I'll go. I am working on a more temperate and durable approach to the issue. The details are not yet in place. But I do know that so far as the political rights and wrongs of any given case are concerned, it will be based on the irrefutable premise that it all depends whose ox is blowing the whistle.