- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

The case of FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley exposes how, in Washington, you are always vulnerable if you are one step ahead of the bureaucracy. Your risks are even greater when bureaucratic inertia threatens literally thousands of lives that could have been saved if our government were vigilant against threats on distant horizons. Ms. Rowley's predicament, however, is just one more powerful example of why protecting whistleblowers' "freedom to warn" may be, in many circumstances, a far more effective antidote to terror than expanding government secrecy and curtailing our constitutional rights.

Unfortunately, egged on by the Bush administration, since September 11 Congress has passed several pieces of legislation which are arguably threats to civil liberties. It has not, however, expanded the liberties needed to fight terror by passing laws that would uphold federal employee free-speech rights the essential tools for effective whistleblowing.

Last week, Ms. Rowley fired off a 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, with copies to the Senate Intelligence Committee, accusing senior FBI officials of obstructing efforts that could have exposed plans for the September 11 terrorist attacks before they occurred. According to the general counsel of the FBI's Minneapolis field office, had her office's entreaties been heeded: "It's at least possible we could have gotten lucky … (and) limited the September 11 attacks and resulting loss of life." Ms. Rowley accused Mr. Mueller and top aides of having "omitted, downplayed, glossed over and/or mischaracterized" her office's investigation of a terrorist suspect linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network before the outrages in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The FBI, Ms. Rowley charged, operates in "a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive … law enforcement action." For example, when agents in the FBI's Minneapolis field office became frustrated with repeated foot-dragging at headquarters and turned to the CIA for help they received reprimands from bureau supervisors.

After September 11, the national security establishment has claimed even greater powers for itself, shielding ever-larger areas of government operations from public scrutiny, while eroding other areas of citizens' rights. It is hard to see how increasing and centralizing the power of institutions that reinforce the paralyzing culture of fear will do more than exacerbate the problem of vulnerabilities to terror. "Your plans for an FBI headquarters' "super squad'," Ms. Rowley wrote Director Mueller, "simply fly in the face of an honest appraisal of the FBI's pre-September 11 failures."

Time magazine which published an edited version of Ms. Rowley's letter to Mr. Mueller reported that she is currently "fretting" about reprisals and, fearful of the consequences of speaking truth to power, is seeking federal whistleblower protection. Her caution appears well-advised, given the impact of her letter. "In Washington," the magazine noted, "where the FBI and the CIA may be criticized but are allowed to clean up their own messes as they see fit, the memo sent shudders through the establishment for a simple reason: It came from within." Not surprisingly, Mr. Mueller ordered that the Rowley memorandum be labeled as classified.

Ms. Rowley's worries about reprisal are frequently echoed by other national-security whistleblowers, who find that the culture of fear and its handmaiden, excessive government secrecy help promote the kind of risk-adverse careerism that many observers see as at the heart of the problem at the FBI and other national security agencies. In the FBI, Ms. Rowley noted, a "double standard" is enforced, which ends up with "those of lower rank being investigated more aggressively and dealt with more harshly for misconduct, while the misconduct of those at the top is often overlooked or results in minor disciplinary action."

If Ms. Rowley seeks protection under the current Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), she as scores of other national security whistleblowers have in the past will likely find that the law has been gutted by an activist circuit court of appeals with a monopoly on judicial review. Instead of the metal shield Congress intended, the law has been rendered to little more than a cardboard adornment a Renaissance Fair version of medieval ornament that serves more as a trap for whistleblowers than real protection. Whistleblowers like Ms. Rowley, who have security clearances, are even more vulnerable, as the bureaucracy has found that the easiest way to deal with the inconvenient is to strip away their essential workplace tool access to classified information. That brands them as unfit to defend national security and allows them to be "back-door" fired without due process rights.

Currently Congress has two proposals designed to offer whistleblowers something more substantial than cardboard shields. The "Paul Revere Freedom to Warn Act," sponsored by Reps. Steve Israel and Ben Gilman of New York, protects whistleblowers who communicate with members of Congress. Under the legislation, they would receive state-of-the-art protection with a day in federal court if harassed for communicating with Congress.

The Whistleblower Protection Act Amendments, introduced by Rep. Connie Morella in the House and Sen. Daniel Akaka in the Senate, would restore the protections intended by Congress when they passed the legislation in 1989 and again in 1994. The WPA amendments would overturn hostile court decisions and create normal judicial review. They would also close the loopholes that leave national security whistleblowers vulnerable to being summarily dismissed.

It is time that national security whistleblowers stop having to fear being treated like FBI traitor Robert Hanssen every time they step forward to right a wrong in a troubled bureaucracy. There should be a limit to the government's ability to harass those who's only "crime" was being right ahead of their time.


Martin Edwin Andersen is media director of the Government Accountability Project.


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