Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Whistleblower protection and the presidential candidates

Posted by David Kassel on October 30, 2007

Whistleblowers could be argued to be the first line of defense against corruption in our society.

Why is it that the Democratic candidates for president appear to be more committed to protecting whistleblowers—and even to identifying their positions on the issue—than do the Republican candidates?

First, a bit of background.  Whistleblowing is defined under the Whistleblower Protection Act as disclosing information that an employee reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, gross mismanagement, abuse of power, or substantial or specfic danger to public health or safety. 

Wikipedia includes a long list of famous whistleblowers, among them W. Mark Felt, who has acknowledged to being Deep Throat, the key source for Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in helping unravel the Watergate scandal; Jeffrey Wygand, who revealed that the executives of big tobacco companies were approving the addition of known carcinogenic ingredients to cigarettes; and Sherron Watkins, who helped expose corporate fraud at Enron. 

Then there’s Daniel Elsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, exposing deceptions of previous administrations about the Vietnam war; Bunnatine Greenhouse, who exposed illegal, no-bid contacts for reconstruction in Iraq to a Halliburton subsidiary; Frank Serpico, who exposed corruption in the New York City Police Department;  Karen Silkwood, who died under mysterious circumstances after disclosing numerous health and safety violations at the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant near Crescent, Oklahoma; and Joseph Wilson, who exposed the Niger yellowcake pretext for the Iraq war, just to name some of the more famous whistleblowers.

Yet, despite the considerable personal risk that these and so many others like them have placed themselves in over the years, legislation to protect them from retaliation by employers and supervisors remains confusing, patchy and ineffective. 

The federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007 would provide additional needed protection to whistleblowers, and yet the bill remains stuck in the legislative process.   The measure was proposed in response to recent federal court decisions limiting whistleblower protections.   The bill would give whistleblower protections to federal workers who specialize in national security issues and would specifically protect federal scientists from retaliation for scientific findings that contradict the political spin of higher-ups.

Last spring, the National Whistleblower Center surveyed the candidates for president, with six yes-or-no questions (not a difficult survey to complete).  The questions were (I’m paraphrasing them):

1.  Do you support passage of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007 (H.R. 985)?

2.  Would you support giving whistleblowers the same protections under the law that are provided by anti-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

3.  Are you committed to appointing persons to head the Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect whistleblowers, who have expertise in whistleblower laws and are committed to protecting whistleblowers?

4.   Should persons who expose weaknesses in homeland security and the government’s anti-terrorism efforts be given full protections under the whistleblower laws?

5.  Would you expand the statute of limitations applicable to environmental whistleblowers from 30 to 180 days?

6.  Would you support a liaison responsisble for interacting with whistleblower advocates?

Among the candidates who responded fully and positively to all six questions of the survey were Hillary Clinton,  Barack Obama, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Mike Huckabee, and Ron Paul (who responded positively to most of the questions).  That’s seven Democrats, including the frontrunners, and two Republicans, currently minor candidates.

Among those who failed to respond were Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Joe Biden.  That’s four Republicans, including the frontrunners, and one minor Democratic candidate.

It’s unfortunate that the major Republican candidates apparently don’t consider these to be questions even worth answering.  As OpentheGovernment.org has pointed out, the Bush administration has cracked down on whistleblowers and has increased the level of threats against federal employees who reveal mismanagement in agencies such as the National Security Agency and the FBI.  It’s important for both Democratic and Republican candidates to speak out against this.

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