- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

Our national challenge is finding the right balance that thwarts terrorism's threat to liberty. A large part of the answer is to draw on the strengths inherent in America's freedoms. Any credible counterattack against terrorism must include strengthening the freedom to warn through whistleblowers, those public servants exercising the First Amendment to defend national security.

Whistleblowers have provided ample warnings about potential terrorist attacks, sounding the alarm about vulnerabilities that senior bureaucratic managers would prefer to ignore or to cover up. The warnings have covered a vast array of official activities. Customs inspectors and border guards tell us of the ease with which smuggling occurs, facilitated by official incompetence, negligence and corruption. Contracting officers keep protesting threats to national security by corporations that profit from fraud in defense contracts for weapons relied on by our troops.

Security experts at nuclear laboratories, weapons production facilities, power plants and waste dumps keep disclosing consistent vulnerabilities to terrorist attack. Pentagon scientists warn about dubious arms and technology transfers that could empower our enemies and civil defense planners tell about woefully inadequate emergency evacuation plans and the failure to safeguard essential food stocks. State Department officials warn about the misuse of diplomatic pouches an Achilles' heel for espionage against the United States.

At the Justice Department, corruption in overseas training programs renders key international law-enforcement initiatives useless, while the sexual shenanigans of senior officials running these efforts leave them open to blackmail by foreign intelligence services and international criminals.

Those betrayals of public trust have been sustained by secrecy. Excessive government secrecy maintained by associated repression is a clear and present danger to national security by sustaining bureaucratic cover-ups of government breakdowns that create vulnerability to terrorism.

Unfortunately, while national security whistleblowers' activities have put them in the forefront of efforts to foresee and prevent terrorist attacks, too often the government's response has been to attack the messenger. With dreary consistency, the official response has been to ignore or harass whistleblowers.

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, there has been a rush to propose new laws against terrorism, often with an explicit reference to how civil liberties may have to take a back seat to fighting the shadowy threat. The government's primary recommendation is to drastically increase its own power. Some of the proposals are irrelevant to terrorism but would revive long-sought efforts to expand government power that could be abused. Those attempts have long been rejected as threats to freedom of themselves.

A war against terrorism does not have to be a war on the Constitution. Before enacting new laws, it is important to make sure existing laws those adopted after careful consideration in a less agitated time are being enforced. To ensure that this happens, government workers must have the freedom to warn of problems when appropriate.

Up to now, sanctions imposed against whistleblowers frequently mean those who complain about possible threats are forced to commit professional suicide. Ironically, the reprisal of choice against national security whistleblowers ensures backdoor termination by yanking their security clearances, branding them unfit to see classified information that is a prerequisite to do their jobs. This backdoor reprisal is so popular because normal constitutional rights have been ignored.

The bureaucracy says we need more of this?

Congress needs to act now to strengthen free speech protections for national security whistleblowers, the "miners' canary" whose disclosures give us a chance to learn about problems before they become tragedies. Congress should move quickly to revive the provisions of the functionally dormant Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, gutted by hostile decisions from an activist federal court with a monopoly on judicial review. Sens. Daniel Akaka, Charles Grassley and Carl Levin have pioneered this reform in the Senate, and Reps. Connie Morella and Ben Gilman in the House. National security whistleblowers should be afforded extra protections, such as closing the security clearance loophole.

In this time of maximum danger, our nation's modern Paul Reveres should not be punished for their warnings. Their efforts could keep us from being blindsided again. Listen to America's sentinels ,who bring fresh news about the threats we don't see on distant horizons. Stop silencing the messengers.

Tom Devine is legal director of the Government Accountability Project. Martin Edwin Andersen was recently awarded the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's "Public Servant Award" for extraordinary service in protecting classified information.

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