Save the Endangered Whistle-Blower
If ever government whistle-blowers needed protection from official retaliation it is now, in the secrecy-obsessed Bush administration. Federal employees daring to disclose fraud and abuse in their bureaucracies have been under virtual siege, isolated as pariahs and shipped off under gag orders to lesser jobs in far-off places.
Appeals to court review under the 17-year-old Whistle-Blower Protection Act have proved fruitless, with the Supreme Court ruling in May that workers have no right to First Amendment protection when they warn lawmakers and taxpayers of government waste and folly. The ruling has thrown the issue back into the lap of Congress. Fortunately, there is enough anger emerging on both sides of the aisle to raise hopes for remedial legislation.
The Senate has unanimously approved an amendment to close loopholes and spell out whistle-blowers’ rights in more forceful detail for the courts. It is attached to a pending military bill, with proponents working for comparably tough legislation to be accepted by the House.
The outcome is not certain. The Justice Department has been opposed to strengthening the law, and a countermove is afoot to give the administration even more power to prosecute whistle-blowers as leakers of official secrets. The coming showdown is a chance for electioneering incumbents to take a stand against the administration’s mania for foiling the public’s right to government transparency.
The best display of Congressional intent would be for lawmakers to not just reaffirm the 1989 law but to extend it to all the national security bureaucracy and to private contractors. The nation’s need for timely whistle-blowers has been painfully driven home by gaffes in pre-9/11 homeland security, the premises for the Iraq invasion, and the administration’s illicit intelligence gathering at home.