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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 10, 2010, 7:29 am

When the Truth Hurts: Intelligence Agencies vs. Whistleblower Protections

BY Michelle Chen

For over a decade, Bassem Youssef had distinguished himself as one of the FBI's top Arabic speaking agents. But despite an excellent performance record, he was kept from serving on sensitive projects related to counterterrorism after September 11, 2001.

After Youssef's complaints about possible ethnic discrimination went nowhere, the agency continued to stall on assigning him to a position that matched his expertise—an assignment that he later learned had been approved by the agency, but never implemented. In 2006, an audit by the Department of Justice found that Youssef was the victim of improper retaliation for alleging unfair treatment.

Former FBI translator Sibel Edmonds drew even more ire from agency higher-ups when she alleged misconduct and corruption within her agency, including a co-worker she suspected of spying. A 2005 Inspector General's report vindicated Edmonds' case, but too late: “rather than investigate Edmonds' allegations vigorously and thoroughly, the FBI concluded that she was a disruption and terminated her contract.”

From corruption in defense contracting to botched federal investigations of child abuse, many of the horror stories we've heard about government malfeasance would never come to public light were it not for Washington's internal watchdogs. But often, their thankless work is ignored or even penalized. The debate over proposed reforms for whistleblower safeguards stretches the tension between protecting civil rights and ensuring integrity in intelligence agencies.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, now under consideration in the House and Senate, would enable many government whistleblowers to bring their case before a federal jury trial to challenge improper firing or retaliation. The courtroom would provide a more independent alternative to the byzantine internal review processes operated by individual agencies. But the proposed reforms contain a caveat: it could actually limit legal recourse for many federal law enforcement agents.

According to the Government Accountability Project, the Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), places intelligence personnel on a separate tier of protections. Under the Senate legislation, intelligence agencies would be able to throw out whistleblowers' claims “with no administrative or judicial review.”

The body appears to deliberately lack teeth. In theory, intelligence agents could challenge the way their complaints were handled by petitioning a newly minted Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Board. Despite the name, the Board's members would be dictated by the agencies the Board is tasked with monitoring. And though it could “order corrective action” in response to evidence of retaliation, damages to the victim would be capped at $300,000. The Board would only be able to recommend, not mandate, an employee's reinstatement. In typical post-9/11 fashion, the Board's decisions could ultimately be ignored if the President declared that following them "would endanger national security.”

It's been over eight years since the government spiraled into its frenzied War on Terror, over one year since the Obama administration appeared to inaugurate of a new era of accountability in Washington. But those promises have been stalled at the intersection between workers' rights and national security.

Stephen Kohn of the National Whistleblowers Center told Politico, “Our position is, you cannot use the Whistleblower Enhancement Act as a vehicle to give the national security establishment more power.”

Elsewhere in the federal jungle, whistleblowers have proven to be a critical as well as endangered species. Last week, Food Safety and Inspection Service veterinarian Dean Wyatt testified before Congress about his struggle to expose the systematic maltreatment of animals in the meatpacking industry, for which he endured two years of stonewalling and retaliation.

The Project on Government Oversight recently protested the disbanding of a "grassroots" subgroup of watchdogs within the Pentagon's Defense Contract Audit Agency--a move that activists see as part of an attempt to blockade public scrutiny.

Though many would assume that national security is one area of government that demands the highest ethical standards, the controversy Senate bill reveals how whistleblower protections remain hamstrung by concentrated power in the intelligence community. All the reports of security loopholes and bureaucratic incompetence that have surfaced in recent months underscore the vital role of whistleblowers as internal watchdogs, particularly in notoriously opaque agencies like the FBI.

But the vigilant voices in government will continue to face silence and suppression so long as national security whistleblowers are muffled by unequal protection. If lawmakers allow government impunity to trump workplace rights in security agencies, they're paving the way for another kind of intelligence failure.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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