- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

In 1997, the Department of Energy's senior-most professional with hands-on responsibility for protecting the nation's vast stores of nuclear weapons-grade materials from theft or sabotage warned that the fissile materials stored at Colorado's Rocky Flat Environmental Technology Site, near Denver, were "at extremely high risk." A terrorist assault could result in "a little mushroom-shaped cloud" over the nearby mile-high city of more than 1 million people, he noted. That sum-of-all-fears scenario might well have occurred last September 11, except for the courage of a national security whistleblower who, like others who dare speak truth to power, nearly lost his job.

Mark Graf was an alarm station supervisor and authorized derivative classifier at Rocky Flats, where more than 21 tons of uranium and plutonium is stored. Mr. Graf watched while a private security agency, Wackenhut Services, eliminated the site's bomb detection unit, and conducted substandard emergency drills and plutonium inventories after being awarded a security contract.

Worried that more than a ton of plutonium already was missing at the facility, Mr. Graf pleaded with management for redress. No action was taken. In 1995, he blew the whistle to a member of Congress and later went public with his concerns on CBS News. In short order he was reassigned, forced to submit to a psychological evaluation and put on administrative leave. He was only allowed to return to work after being gagged from speaking to Congress, the media and the agency. Mr. Graf was also threatened with being fired, even though his disclosures are authoritatively cited as a key factor in legislation passed as part of the 1998 Defense Authorization Bill, requiring an annual review of the safety and security program.

Mr. Graf, like scores of other national security whistleblowers, are modern Paul Reveres. Like the Revolutionary War hero, they warn us about threats that, in some cases, could quickly become disasters. Like the FBI's celebrated Coleen Rowley, Mr. Graf put his professional life on the line in order to exercise a right that has become all the more precious since September 11 the freedom to warn.

Unfortunately, legislation now in Congress meant to protect Homeland Security would leave people like the Rocky Flats whistleblowers and Ms. Rowley without meaningful rights to challenge government security breakdowns. A bill passed by the House in late July offers the proposed 170,000 new employees of the Department of Homeland Security only rhetorical protections, based on already woefully inadequate whistleblower protection laws. It would also strip them of due process procedures and remedies to enforce these paper-only rights. As any first-year law student can tell you, rights without remedies are really no rights at all.

In the absence of genuine, enforceable rights, potential whistleblowers privy to crucial information and insights, face the "chilling effects" of possible dismissal, demotion, harassment and blackballing. Each must calculate the duty to country as a trade off with the possibilities of professional and personal survival.

The House version of Homeland Security does not provide for whistleblowers to be reinstated, or to compensatory damages from harm, reimbursement for legal fees, or even a pseudo day in court before a bureaucratic hearing officer. By turning those who do their duty into martyrs, other would-be whistleblowers are convinced to look the other way and remain silent observers.

Ironically, the Government Affairs Committee presided over by Rep. Dan Burton had included real whistleblower protections passed by overwhelming voice vote in their own version of the Homeland Security bill, only to see these stripped out of the legislation passed by the full House. That legislation, like a similar bill being sponsored by Sen. Mark Dayton in the upper chamber, was named, fittingly, the Paul Revere Act.

The Paul Revere initiative is a long-overdue follow-on to the Lloyd-LaFollette Act of 1912, which affirmed the right of federal employees to report their concerns to Congress. Unfortunately, like the House Homeland Security bill, the well-intentioned Lloyd-LaFollette Act did not include judicially enforceable remedies for whistleblowers. As a result, of the 54 cases bought under its provisions in the past 90 years, 53 were dismissed by the courts for lack of remedies.

President Bush and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge have repeatedly called on federal employees to stand with them to protect America against terrorism. But none of us can be protected by cardboard shields, whistleblowers included.

This fall, Congress must give whistleblowers real protection, shielding them within the context of existing laws that also block unauthorized release of sensitive information. Loose lips need not sink ships. As Paul Revere showed us, there are times that raising our voices in alarm can also protect our freedoms and our security.

Martin Edwin Andersen is media director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington-based whistleblower protection organization and a reporter for Insight magazine.

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