In a city filled with leakers, congressional committees with subpoena powers and investigative reporters, John N. Tye wants to make it easier to expose government wrongdoing without getting fired or breaking the law.
Tye, a former State Department whistleblower, and lawyer Mark S. Zaid have formed Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law office to help would-be tipsters in government and the military navigate the bureaucratic and legal morass involved in reporting governmental misdeeds.
Whistleblowing can be a challenge for people who have taken an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, Tye said in a telephone interview.
"Then you get into government and you see something wrong," he said. "You've sworn to stop it, but there aren't a lot of tools at your disposal, especially if it's your supervisor who's breaking the law. People are scared. They're worried about their jobs. If it involves classified information, they can be criminally prosecuted."
Tye's interest in whistleblowing came from a stint as section chief for Internet freedom in the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, from 2011 to 2014. He came forward as a whistleblower to publicize the government's electronic surveillance practices.He wrote about it in 2014 in a Washington Post opinion piece that he submitted to the State Department for approval. His quest to air his concerns cost him $13,000 in legal fees.
It is not entirely coincidental that Whistleblower Aid is being launched during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose 2016 campaign is under investigation for contacts with Russians.
"We want to advise people what to do, whether it's going to Congress, or an inspector general or Robert Mueller," Tye said when asked about the timing, referring to the general counsel handling the investigation.
"This is not a partisan effort," he added. "At the same time, yes, the rule of law starts with the office of the president. Like many other people, we are definitely concerned about things that are happening in the administration. The decision to fire [FBI Director] James Comey. The lack of transparency. A lot of people have questions about whether this administration respects the rule of law."
Tye says he will never divulge classified information he learned while at the State Department. If a whistleblower comes to Whistleblower Aid with classified information, he or she will be steered to investigators with security clearances and the power to do something about it.
"We're not WikiLeaks," Tye said.
"We provide legal advice and information to people who have sensitive information and want to explore their lawful options. We're not advising anyone how to leak anything."
Clients seeking that advice will not be charged. The firm is seeking donations from foundations and crowdsource funding to cover expenses.
Starting Monday, the start-up will be blitzing Washington to publicize its services with ads on Metro trains. It will have people on street corners handing out branded whistles. And throughout the week, two mobile billboards advertising Whistleblower Aid will spend 10 hours a day circling the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Agency to try to attract clients.
The organization has a website, WhistleblowerAid.org. But contacting it takes some forensic skills. To maintain security, it won't accept phone calls, text messages or emails, because someone in the government could be surveilling communication.
Instead, to reach someone at the organization, it's necessary to install a special Tor browser that allows access to an encrypted, anonymous part of the Internet. Whistleblower Aid has two encrypted sites there.
Just don't call.