- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

A provision in the bill seeking to create a Homeland Security Department will exempt its employees from whistleblower protection, the very law that helped expose intelligence-gathering missteps before September 11.
The legislation now before Congress contains a provision allowing the director of the proposed agency to waive all employee protections in Title V, including the Whistleblower Protection Act. The act protects government employees from retaliation or losing employment for speaking out on waste, fraud and abuse.
FBI Agent Coleen Rowley blew the whistle on her agency for mishandling a probe of terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been indicted by a federal grand jury on six counts of conspiracy in the September 11 attacks. Mrs. Rowley testified before a Senate panel earlier this month that a "climate of fear" prevented an aggressive investigation of the man whom authorities believe was to be the 20th hijacker.
As the 21-year veteran testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, President Bush proposed the new Cabinet position in a prime-time televised address.
The protection exclusion has concerned members of Congress and civil-liberties activists. "I don't think we want to just let a provision like that sail through without taking a close look at it," says Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican.
"If you look back at recent history, it has been a very, very important aspect of ferreting out the truth regarding government actions. Much of what we know that went wrong in the White House in the '90s was initially highlighted by special agent Aldrich." The reference is to Gary Aldrich, who wrote "Unlimited Access: An FBI Agent Inside the Clinton White House."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, sent a letter Wednesday to Tom Ridge, White House homeland security adviser, asking that the administration guarantee full application of the act to employees of the proposed department. "Whistleblowers are key to exposing a dysfunctional bureaucracy," Mr. Grassley says.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, government agencies have placed a greater emphasis on secrecy and restricted information for security reasons, he says. "With these restrictions come a greater danger of stopping the legitimate disclosure of wrongdoing and mismanagement, especially about public safety and security. Bureaucracies have an instinct to cover up their misdeeds and mistakes, and that temptation is even greater when they can use a potential security issue as an excuse."
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service last month was required to pay back wages and cancel suspension and demotion orders for two Border Patrol agents who told a newspaper about security problems along the U.S.-Canadian border.
The agents, assigned to the INS field office in Detroit, were recommended for discipline after they told the Detroit Free Press that Michigan's border lacked the resources to adequately protect the country from terrorists. Agents Mark Hall and Robert Lindemann said the 804 miles of shoreline border were guarded by 28 field agents, one working boat, several damaged electronic sensors and one broken remote camera. They were cited for not following instructions not to talk to reporters and recommended for 90-day suspensions and one-year demotions.
The exclusion of the whistleblower law is also opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says protections against retribution for those such as Mrs. Rowley would not exist in the new agency.
"It's very scary. The public needs to know what the government is doing," says Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU. "Sometimes, it hurts Democrats; sometimes, it hurts Republicans, but it's always informative and even more necessary to protect whistleblowers in homeland security than any other government agency. It's not just tax dollars spent wisely, but doing what we need to do to keep people safe."
Other elements of the plan are long on secrecy and short on accountability, Mr. Edgar says.
The department would not be required to release information under the Freedom of Information Act. This would eliminate the agency's responsibility to answer questions from the public. Advisory committees that normally include public input would be immune, and the Cabinet secretary would have veto power over inspector general audits and investigations.
"We need to know real facts, and not just spin from the agency," he says.
Jerry Seper contributed to this report.


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