Monday, May 23, 2005

Imagine revolutionary patriot Paul Revere, exhausted from his midnight ride alerting his countrymen about the threat posed by an oppressive British army just over the horizon. Suddenly and without warning, he’s knocked off his horse, charged with creating “publick disorder,” and then declared insane — by the very people he was trying to warn.

The scenario seems farfetched, until you consider what is happening today to national-security whistleblowers — this nation’s modern Paul Reveres — men and women who are finding that, even amid a war on terror, an embarrassed post-September 11 government bureaucracy would rather crush truth-tellers than admit its foibles.

Consider Robert G. Wright Jr., an outspoken agent in the FBI’s Chicago field office.

Even before September 11, Mr. Wright had warned the bureau that money contributed by a militant Islamic terrorist cell had helped finance the 1998 al Qaeda bombing of two United States embassies, in which more than 200 people were killed. Through Mr. Wright’s efforts, $1.4 million was also seized from the terrorists before September 11.

However, a strong criminal case Mr. Wright and his peers were preparing against terrorist suspects was killed, the former federal prosecutor who handled the case later charged, either because of influence by Saudi Arabia or due to bureaucratic ineptness.

Then September 11 occurred. Within a month, the federal government officially identified an important financier for Osama bin Laden in Chicago. He was one of the very people whom the FBI had, months earlier, told Mr. Wright to stop investigating.

Concerned with the bureau’s bumbling on this and other September 11-related cases, Mr. Wright went public with his criticism, charging that “the FBI allowed known terrorists, their co-conspirators and financiers, to operate and roam freely throughout the United States.”

Embarrassed by the publicity, the FBI mounted a multi-pronged retaliation campaign against Mr. Wright that has involved phony investigations, lie-detector tests and even threats to prevent him from appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor.” Documents surfaced by Sen. Charles Grassley showed that FBI supervisors intended to “take out” Mr. Wright for his whistleblowing.

Now they have acted on those threats. Last month, the bureau suspended Mr. Wright without pay, took away his gun and badge and told him he would be fired, according to his attorney at Judicial Watch. They even took away his bureau-issued car, leaving him stranded where he was on temporary assignment in Washington.

Early this month, Russ Tice, an intelligence analyst at the National Security Agency, similarly had his concerns swept under the rug. The supersecret government agency that conducts electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking informed Mr. Tice that his security clearance was being revoked and that he was being fired.

Mr. Tice, a highly praised veteran of four U.S. intelligence agencies, ran into trouble after reporting and pursuing his suspicions that a former co-worker at the Defense Intelligence Agency might be a Chinese spy — a fear heightened after it was learned an FBI informant may have been working for the Chinese, too.

For almost 18 years, Mr. Tice passed regular psychiatric evaluations in order to retain his security clearance, including an evaluation at NSA’s security office just nine months before the very same security officials subjected him to another “emergency psych test.” This one conveniently found what Mr. Tice’s retaliators wanted. Without being given even a copy of the NSA’s procedures for revoking security clearances, Mr. Tice lost his after a sham hearing.

At an event held in late April on Capitol Hill, Mr. Tice noted: “Until the [intelligence community] can no longer use security clearances as weapons of retaliation without any fear of any form of oversight, there will be no incentive for them to stop this outrageous practice.” Mr. Tice has been contacted by at least 25 current and former NSA employees who have also had their security clearances suspected or have been booted out of the agency, the majority on trumped-up charges.

Self-protecting bureaucrats may be the culprits in this sense-defying spectacle of “Paul Revere Meets George Orwell,” but it is Congress that enables their actions.

More than four years after President Bush first assumed office demanding adherence to high ethical standards by senior federal officials, Congress has yet to pass the kind of whistleblower protection law that would allow the White House to redeem its promissory note to the nation.

Congress needs to tighten up whistleblower protections; departmental and agency inspectors general need greater power to investigate employee disclosures, and steps must be taken to ensure homeland- and national-security agencies are brought under effective oversight by Congress.

The plight of September 11 whistleblowers like Messrs. Wright and Tice provides all the evidence — as if any more were required — about why such legislation needs to be made law.

Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. Martin Edwin Andersen won the federal service’s Public Servant Award for blowing the whistle on egregious security violations at the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.

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