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New film looks at ‘War on Whistleblowers’

Columnist

The Obama administration’s approach to federal whistleblowers has been likened to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

On the good doctor’s side, President Obama has important accomplishments in protecting the rights of whistleblowers. Yet whistleblower advocates are fuming at the administration’s actions against federal employees whom it considers to be leakers of national security information.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

“There’s a schizophrenia within the administration,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project. “It’s been Obama versus Obama on whistleblower policy. Until recently, there was a virtual free-speech advocacy for whistleblower job rights that’s unprecedented, more than any other president in history.

“At the same time,” Devine added, “he has willingly allowed the Justice Department to prosecute whistleblowers on tenuous grounds.”

That last point — the Mr. Hyde side — is the focus of the new film “War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State.” (Disclosure: The documentary features comments by Dana Priest, a Washington Post colleague.) It is a project of the Brave New Foundation, a social justice advocacy organization. The film is being shown in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles, but the main distribution channels will be iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and cable systems.

The Justice Department rejects the notion that it is overzealous in its prosecution of those the government calls national security leakers.

“Unauthorized disclosures of classified information cause damage to our national security and we take the investigation and prosecution of such matters very seriously,” Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said via e-mail. “In these and all other cases, Justice Department investigators and prosecutors follow the facts and the law to determine whether charges are appropriate.”

The Justice Department does not target whistleblowers, he added: “However, we cannot condone the knowing and willful disclosure of classified information to the media or others not entitled to such information. An individual in authorized possession of classified information has no authority or right to unilaterally determine that it should be made public or otherwise disclose it.”

The film recognizes the president’s good side, with a quick nod by Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. The “good news,” she said, is passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which Obama supported, and his directive providing protection for national security whistleblowers. That mention, however, is not until 59 minutes into the 66-minute film.

Balanced? No. But the stories about the government’s aggressive moves against federal employees who worked to uphold the finest traditions of public service are chilling and deserve the notice and outrage the film hopes to generate.

Franz Gayl’s is the first case presented. The Defense Department civilian employee was punished for his efforts to save the lives of U.S. troops at war.

“Hundreds of Marines were tragically lost and probably thousands maimed unnecessarily, so I said, let’s replace the Humvees with what are called MRAPs, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles,” he says in the film.

After taking his concerns to Pentagon officials with no luck, he went to the news media. Then the blowback hit. He was stripped of his security clearance, the lifeline for national security workers, and suspended.

“They were using all these personnel actions against me,” he said. “I’m the substandard employee, bottom 3 percent, unreliable, untrustworthy, et cetera, et cetera. After investigations and after all these personnel actions and reprisals, I was placed on administrative leave.

“I was fearful. If I have to leave the government now and I don’t have security clearances, we’re gonna have to move away. I can’t get a job around here. You can’t do anything without a security clearance around [the] D.C. area. I knew that life was gonna go ‘foof,’ fall off a cliff.”

Gayl was fortunate to have whistleblower advocates who cushioned his fall. And in November 2011, after intervention by an Office of Special Counsel that was re-energized by Obama, the military’s threat to suspend Gayl indefinitely was lifted and his security clearance was reinstated.

There’s a lot left out of his story in this space, and similar stories of other whistleblowers can’t be mentioned at all. Gayl’s is a distressing tale of Uncle Sam playing the bully, making life hell for a federal employee who fought to better protect American troops.

“I’m now working back at the Pentagon in the office from which I was removed,” Gayl says at the end of the film. “I feel very lucky, because I received a lot of support from a lot of outsiders that I don’t think every person in my situation gets.”

The film makes you wonder how many more trampled, and largely unknown, federal whistleblowers like Gayl are out there.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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