- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

The treatment of whistleblowers by the United States government might be more properly addressed in a conference on human rights violations than as a model to follow for the rest of the world, judging by comments made at an international conference on promoting good government.
The conclusion reached by a number of participants at the Global Forum on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity appeared to be that, while American models of public information access and even election supervision may be useful to developing countries, current protections for those who fight against waste, fraud and abuse from within the U.S. government leave much to be desired.
"The American system seems to be embedded in the concept that whistleblowers will be victimized," remarked Guy Dehn, director of Public Concern at Work, a British good government organization. "Too much of the spotlight ends up on the individuals who raise questions (about abuse) rather than the substantive issues they bring to light."
The global forum, sponsored by the Dutch government, was attended by more than 1,500 delegates and experts from every continent, and formed part of a growing effort to share information and experiences in order to confront local corruption and thus help stem international crime. A message from President George W. Bush pledging support for the conferences aims was well-received by the assembled guests. So too was U.S. expertise ranging from the operation of the Federal Elections Commission to the usefulness of the Freedom Information Act (FOIA) in promoting accountability, and various techniques to fight international money laundering.
When it came to protecting whistleblowers, a key demand emerging at the forum, new legislation from Britain, introduced by Tory backbencher Richard Shepherd and passed by parliament in 1998, showed far greater appeal for global good government activists picture of the current state of protections offered by the United States. Already South Africa has embraced the concepts contained in the British Public Interest Disclosure Act by adopting similar legislation, called a Protected Disclosures Act, last year. The quick passage of the South African bill was due in large part to a feeling that, if the concept passed muster in the conservative British bureaucracy, it was sufficiently flight tested for passage there.
Unlike the U.S. model, which bases its rationale for whistleblower protection on employee First Amendment rights, the British law showcases the disclosures they make as essential to institutional accountability and integrity. The law applies to almost every workplace in the United Kingdom and offers near-complete protection to those individuals who expose wrongdoing.
Rather than impose a nigh-impossible burden of proof on whistleblowers as is the case in the United States following a series of recent rulings by a hostile Circuit Court of Appeals in Britain it is the employer who must bear the burden of proof about why whistleblower claims of mismanagement and retaliation claims are false.
According to Mr. Dehn, British conservatives happily agreed to the sweeping change in bureaucratic culture in government and industry in part because they realized that, by doing so, disclosures by whistleblowers were a way of treating wrongdoing as an individual matter, or one involving a lack of institutional communication. Therefore, under the new system, every potential scandal does not need to be addressed as evidence of the need for more government regulation. Management was brought into the deal by good government activists convincing arguments that whistleblowers in fact usually help governments and businesses work better and more efficiently; that it is more cost efficient to deal with the message (of trouble) than shooting the messenger (the whistleblower).
The benefit of the British legislation to whistleblowers is as obvious as it is immediate. Unlike in the United States, where whistleblowers face months and even years of prolonged and painful retaliation, including unemployment, as a result of their disclosures, in Britain an independent tribunal can hear whistleblower complaints almost immediately. The laws emphasis on whistleblowers as partners in promoting agency accountability and integrity means that often their complaints can be resolved within the bureaucracy itself. There is little need for whistleblowers to seek media attention about their own personal travails because these are greatly reduced. Instead, media coverage is largely reserved for the substance of their complaints.
There is, of course, some good news coming out of the American whistleblower story, and this too was heard in The Hague. Even though the Court of Appeals appears determined to roll back nearly all congressionally mandated whistleblower protections, making the current system a Trojan Horse for those who "commit the truth," the federal agencies designed to protect whistleblowers are now demonstratively better led and more combative. At the same time, a number of key legislators are reportedly poised to introduce legislation to right some of the most obvious wrongs emanating from the out-of-control court decisions.
Unfortunately for those who hoped that America would lead the way, as it has done on so many other issues, in promoting the protection of those called "bell ringers" in Dutch and "lighthouse keepers" in Russian, there was a sense of disappointment here. The American whistleblower experience may be more relevant for what it shows about what can go wrong, than what is being done right.
It is time that the "city on the hill" shines for Americas whistleblowers as Congress intended in two unanimous votes, as well as offering hope and guidance around the world to those who are our allies in fighting corruption and international crime.

Martin Edwin Andersen, a former senior adviser for policy planning at the Department of Justice, blew the whistle on corruption and violations of national security rules in Janet Renos Justice Department.

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