NEW YORK - Fifty current and former employees of U.S. national security agencies are demanding that Congress end government retaliation against those who expose national security blunders.
Leaders of the new group, known as the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC), have stepped up their efforts to win protection since testifying late last month before Congressional committees in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
They called on congress to take action to permit whistleblowers to sue government retaliators in their personal and official capacities and to bring suit against agencies for failure to rectify misdeeds by employees or provide sufficient safeguards against whistleblower retaliation.
The group is led by Sibel Edmonds, who has been trying to sue the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for firing her in 2002 after she blew the whistle on agency employees. Edmonds said she was fired from her job as a wiretap translator because she told superiors she suspected a co-worker was leaking information to targets of an ongoing FBI probe. The FBI said it fired her because she committed security violations and disrupted the office.
''In recent years the number of national security whistleblowers has grown exponentially, so has the level of retaliation and harassment against these whistleblowers by the government,'' Edmonds testified.
''The careers, marriages, lives, and physical and mental well-being of these conscientious patriots have been destroyed for doing the right thing, for fulfilling their first and foremost duty, protecting our nation,'' she said. ''Agencies' retaliation tactics follow the same blueprint, as if there is a government agency manual for retaliation against whistleblowers, truth tellers. They yank our security clearances, they force us to take polygraphs, they engage in humiliation, demotion, threats and the list goes on.''
Polygraphs also are known as lie-detector tests.
Currently, Edmonds said, ''we have no system in place that applies direct, individual accountability when it comes to retaliation against whistleblowers. Thus, there exists no deterrence for those who engage in government waste, fraud, and abuse, and criminal activities that jeopardize our nation's security, interests, and well being.''
Even when a whistleblower's complaints are confirmed, wrongdoers generally remain in their positions and many are promoted and rewarded, she said.
The new Coalition includes current and former employees of the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), and the National Security Agency (NSA).
Veterans of whistleblower protection campaigns backed the new group's demands.
''Given the tremendous stakes and the huge national investment, the American public need credible but non-official sources of information. These whistleblowers are in a position to authoritatively give the lie to official overstatements. In addition, these experts can be critical catalysts in sparking both open and informed public dialogue,'' said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the civil service support group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
''If these whistleblowers function as watchdogs on our security agencies, they will perform an invaluable and irreplaceable public service,'' Ruch told IPS. ''The members of this coalition work for agencies where the legal climate for workers is, shall we say, unique. The stark absence of whistleblower rights in security, intelligence and military agencies is a growing vacuum that requires dedicated efforts to address.''
Members of the new coalition include a number of high profile whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, the former Defense Department official who in 1971 leaked the ''Pentagon Papers'' to the press, showing that the U.S. public had been deceived about the causes of and U.S. decision-making in the Vietnam War.
Other members include Coleen Rowley, the former Minneapolis FBI agent who reported to seniors, before the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, that a known Islamist extremist, Zacarias Moussaoui, had paid some 8000 dollars in cash for lessons to fly a Boeing 747. The agency ignored her report. Moussaoui pleaded guilty Apr. 22 to six counts of conspiring with the hijackers in the Sep. 11 plot.
Edmonds said she is weighing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of reviving her suit against the government. John Ashcroft, the U.S. attorney general until earlier this year, had quashed Edmonds's case by persuading a lower court that the state secrets would be revealed if the action went forward.
Previously however, a report by the Justice Department's inspector general (IG) criticized the FBI's handling of the matter and arguments by Ashcroft that her lawsuit could expose intelligence-gathering methods and disrupt diplomatic relations with foreign governments.
The FBI falls under the Justice Department, over which the attorney general presides.
The IG report concluded that the FBI did not adequately investigate the allegations and that Edmonds was retaliated against for speaking out.
”We found that many of Edmonds's core allegations relating to the (espionage allegation) were supported by either documentary evidence or witnesses other than Edmonds,'' the report said. It added that Edmonds's whistleblower allegations were ''the most significant factor'' in the FBI's decision to terminate her.
Whistleblowers at government agencies tasked with protecting the U.S. security have been excluded from the protections afforded the rest of the federal workforce. Employees at other agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may seek protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act, but that law has been crippled by a series of judicial interpretations.
In her congressional testimony, Edmonds said that ''there has never been a determination or an accurate estimate of the millions of dollars expended by the government in misguided actions to first retaliate against whistleblowers and then to resist with extraordinary vigor the attempts by whistleblowers to clear their names, get their jobs back, and expose agency wrongdoing.''
She called on congress to direct the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional watchdog agency, to undertake a study calculating the costs in time, taxpayer money, and lost opportunities for diverted resources in retaliating against whistleblowers and defending against whistleblower claims for the years 2000-2005.
Jurors recently awarded 2.1 million dollars to a former employee of the top-secret Lawrence Livermore Laboratory after finding that she was illegally fired eight years ago chiefly because she was going to be a witness in a sexual-harassment case against the nuclear weapons lab.
Meanwhile, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democratic member of the House of Representatives committee on homeland security, said he plans to introduce a bill to protect national security whistleblowers, including those in agencies that have not had such protections, from retaliation.
The legislation would apply to all federal employees, contractors, and private sector workers who report homeland security or national security flaws, threats to public health and safety, violations of laws or regulations, or waste, fraud and mismanagement to their employer or to the Government Accountability Office, a government agency, or Congress.
The bill also would criminalize retaliation against whistleblowers, with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service