Obama versus the whistle blowers

     

    As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama praised government whistle blowers; in his words, “We need to empower federal employes as watchdogs of wrongdoing.” And as a new president in 2009, he again praised whistle blowers, lauding them as “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government.”

    But Obama’s actions have contradicted his words. All too often, his administration has prosecuted the “watchdogs of wrongdoing” for leaking embarrassing info. Worse yet, his administration has trumpeted its record-breaking behavior. At a Senate hearing last year, Attorney General Eric Holder said: “We have tried more leak cases – brought more leak cases in the course of this administration – than any other administration.”

    Holder was right, although it’s hardly bragworthy that Team Obama has used a World War I-era espionage law a record six times to go after whistle blowers. That 1917 law was designed to prosecute spies who gave U.S. military information to foreign governments – not to prosecute government workers who blew the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse.

    This post is essentially a sequel to Friday’s, where I cited the administration’s recent assaults on press freedom – specifically, the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press phone records and the tracking of a Fox News reporter – which were undertaken in order to identify leakers inside the government. Obama, under fire in late May, voiced requisite love for the First Amendent, but a day later Jon Stewart nailed it: “They believe in freedom of the press – just not freedom of speech for people who might talk to the press.”

    And that’s really the core issue. The assaults on AP and Fox News are mere symptoms of a broader, and more dangerous, government mindset.  If whistle blowers can be sufficiently intimidated – by prosecutions, or the threat of prosecutions – they might be more reluctant to talk to the press. And if fewer of them talk to the press, we’ll learn even less than we know now about the inner workings of government.

    Nearly a decade ago, we learned about torture and waterboarding because whistle blowers leaked the info. We also learned about George W. Bush’s warrantless, illegal eavesdropping program because whistle blowers leaked the info. More recently, we learned about a $1.2-billion taxpayer boondoggle at the National Security Agency because an NSA whistle blower, after failing to get satisfaction through proper channels, ultimately leaked the info to the Baltimore Sun.

    “Slow poisoning of a democracy”

    The NSA employe, Thomas Drake, was rightfully upset that his agency rejected a cost-efficient data collection program that effectively identified terrorism threats – and that, instead, the NSA chose a vastly more expensive and far less effective program that also played fast and loose with Americans’ privacy. As a reward for his efforts (the boondoggle program was ultimately canceled), the Bush administration began to investigate Drake in 2007.

    After sending nearly two years under a cloud (and paying for lawyers), Drake hoped that the new president would quash the federal probe; after all, Obama had said such nice things about whistle blowers. But no such luck. In 2010, Obama’s Justice Department indicted Drake on 10 separate counts, five of which stemmed from the aforementioned 1917 espionage law. Drake faced 35 years in the slammer.

    But in 2011, after his efforts were widely publicized, the Justice Department suddenly decided that he wasn’t a treacherous spy after all. All the charges were dropped – except for a misdemeanor (“exceeding authorized use of a computer”). Drake got probation and community service. That’s the good news. The bad news is, he’s gone from the NSA and working in an Apple store.

    Not long after Drake was cleared, he co-wrote a guest column that minced no words about Obama: “This administration’s attack on national security whistle blowers expands Bush’s secrecy regime and cripples the free press by silencing its most important sources. It’s a recipe for the slow poisoning of a democracy.” He got that right – despite the fact that Obama has seemingly embraced greater protections for whistle blowers.

    Last November, the president signed a reform law that protects millions of federal workers who blow the whistle on corruption and wrongdoing; the law makes it tougher to punish or fire them. But there’s a huge loophole: The new law doesn’t cover national security workers who talk to the press. And, last Tuesday, the Obama administration proposed a new rule that would limit the reach of the reform law – by expanding the number of federal jobs deemed to be “national security sensitive.”

    Government whistle blowers, stubborn souls tempered by experience, are too skeptical to be fooled by Obama’s lip service. I wrote a magazine article about whistle blowers way back in 1989, after spending a couple months with seven of them around the country – and here’s how I characterized them: “They are workaholics, even perfectionists. They have a strong sense of personal worth….Once wronged, they will risk alienating even their families in the quest for vindication. Even when they bring down their villains, they still lament the institutional evils they cannot correct.”

    I remember my sitdown, in a coffee shop near the Pentagon, with Ernest Fitzgerald. He was a pioneer of the genre; as a Defense official in the ’60s, he’d blown the whistle on a warplane that had gone $2 billion over budget. As a reward for his candor, he got fired in 1969. It took him 13 years to get his job back. When I spoke with him, he was still ticked off – not just about his case, but about the treatment of all whistle blowers.

    “The only thing our top officials can’t stand is an honest person,” he told me. “The system ejects them. And if it can’t eject them, it’ll encapsulate them, neutralize them. These people need friends.”

    Clearly, they still do.

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    The death today of New Jersey’s senior senator, 89-year-old Democrat Frank Lautenberg, will surely roil the political waters in New Jersey. But first, decency impels us to bid farewell to a pugnacious guy who waged a long and largely unsuccessful fight to curb America’s lamentable gun fetish. Indeed, his last appearance on the Senate floor was in April, when he left his sickbed to vote for expanded background checks of gun buyers. Also, if you’re glad people can’t smoke cigarettes on planes, you can thank Frank for that.

    But Senate Democrats will likely have one less vote in the short term, because Chris Christie is expected to use his gubernatorial prerogative to name a Republican to fill the seat until a special election is held. And he’s well-positioned to help the Republican candidate in that special election, because he’s empowered to set the date. If he schedules it for Nov. 5 – the same day as the gubernatorial contest – his re-election coattails could arguably buttress the GOP’s odds of winning the special Senate race.

    Arguably. Because the last time a Republican won a Senate race in New Jersey, the year was 1972.

    But that would be temporary as well; the Senate seat will be up for grabs anew in November ’14, when the official election – for a full six-year term – is already on the calendar. The next 17 months won’t be fun for Jersey’s voters, but the political consultants can look forward to full employment.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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