“Warren Weinstein is dead. Colin Rutherford, Joshua Boyle, Caitlin Coleman and the child she bore in captivity are still hostages in Pakistan. I failed them. I exhausted all efforts and resources available to return them but I failed.”
So began Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine’s testimony before a Senate hearing Thursday on retaliation against whistleblowers. He was the first witness in what was a sometimes-emotional hearing into the reprisals military personnel and civilians can face from the government they serve.
Amerine is the decorated Special Forces officer who was assigned to help retrieve Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier held captive for five years after leaving his base in Afghanistan. He was charged with desertion after his return.
In the course of Amerine’s work, he said his team learned about the other prisoners, Rutherford, Boyle and Coleman. After he complained to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) that “the bureaucracy for hostage recovery was broken” and spoke with the FBI, Amerine said he was labeled a whistleblower, “a term that has become radioactive and derogatory.” His security clearance was suspended, his retirement was halted and he became the subject of a criminal investigation.
“A terrible irony is that my security clearance was suspended on January 15th,” he said, “the day after Warren Weinstein was killed, as we now know,” accidentally in an American drone attack.
The Army would not comment specifically on Amerine’s case, but a spokesman, Lt. Col. Ben Garrett, said by e-mail “that both the law and Army policy would prohibit initiating an investigation based solely on a Soldier’s protected communications with Congress.”
Amerine was with three other whistleblowers, federal civilians also reporting reprisals from an Uncle Sam who evidently did not want to hear the truth. Their cases are still in progress, so their claims have not been fully substantiated. But they testified under oath about the kind of revenge that is reported all too often in the federal workplace.
“These men and women take great risk to stand up and expose wrongdoing,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “They sacrifice their careers, their reputations and often their financial security. Congress — and this committee in particular —must support federal whistleblowers and ensure that they are adequately protected from retaliation.”
The witnesses at the hearing have congressional attention, but that is not the same as protection.
Jose Rafael Ducos Bello, a Customs and Border Protection chief officer, spoke movingly about his autistic boy who attempted suicide following the retaliation against his father.
The “biggest cost” of reporting “fraud, waste, abuse and improper use of AUO (administratively uncontrollable overtime),” he said, was “watching my son trying to jump [off] his high school roof” because of the father’s troubles at work. Getting the call about his son’s suicide attempt, he added, was “emotionally devastating.”
Taylor Johnson, a Department of Homeland Security senior special agent, said she was hit with reprisals after disclosing gross mismanagement, fraud and waste, including national security risks, in a visa program for foreign investors.
The reprisals included being “escorted by three supervisors from my desk and out of my permanent duty station,” she said. “I was not permitted to access my case file or personal items. I was alienated from my friends and colleagues, who were told by management to steer clear of me since I was facing criminal charges. I was removed from my permanent duty station and initially assigned to an office over 50 miles from my home and family.”
Her service weapon and government vehicle were taken, but perhaps worst of all, “I almost lost my youngest child,” Johnson said, “when an adoption social worker tried to verify employment and was told I had been terminated by the agency for a criminal offense.”
Marsha Catron, a DHS spokeswoman, would not comment on Johnson’s case, but did say “when both an allegation of misconduct and a claim of whistleblower protection occur, the Department follows the law to resolve these issues appropriately.”
For a period of more than six months after Michael James Keegan, a former Social Security associate commissioner, complained that agency officials misled Congress about a building project, “I was confined to an empty office with little or no work to do, no responsibilities and very little contact with other SSA employees,” he told the committee.
SSA said it is not allowed to comment on Keegan’s case without his consent.
Agencies refrain from discussing personnel matters publicly, so the official position on these case was not heard. Those perspectives “would help us to better understand these issues,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the committee, reminded the hearing.
But he praised “people who are willing to stand up and say something when they see something that is wrong…. And in order to encourage people to stand up, we need to ensure that they will not be punished for doing so.”
The stories Amerine, Ducos-Bello, Johnson and Keegan told are not encouraging.