As loyal POGO blog readers know, we've been working to achieve
enhanced whistleblower protections for many years. Mike German of
Civil Liberties Union has written an important reminder that there
is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to whistleblower
protections for the intelligence community, and we wanted to share his
piece here. This post was originally
published over at Campaign for Liberty, and is re-posted here
The men and women of the U.S. intelligence community need your help.
No, they don't need help to spy on you and your fellow Americans without suspicion of wrongdoing -- Congress already gave them that power by extending the Patriot Act and legalizing the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. Even with ample evidence that they've routinely violated these over-broad surveillance authorities, such as the FBI's abuse of National Security Letters and so-called "exigent" letters or the National Security Agency's "over-collection" of Americans' communications, the intelligence agencies unabashedly demand more spying powers. Not surprisingly, much of this spying targets political activity. The ACLU's new "Spyfiles" website documents surveillance or obstruction of First Amendment-protected activity in 33 states and the District of Columbia since 2001.
And they certainly don't need more resources -- as the Washington Post's series on "Top Secret America" makes clear, they've built a surveillance-industrial complex so large that even those running it don't know its scope. The intelligence budget is reportedly $75 billion per year, with a significant percentage of that spent on 1,931 private contractors, yet there is no evidence to show we are safer as a result. Indeed, the excessive secrecy in which the intelligence community operates virtually guarantees that waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement will regularly occur. Our nation's founders certainly wouldn't be surprised that a system that uses secrecy to actively subvert constitutional checks and balances would go awry.
What the men and women of the intelligence community need is legal protection when they blow the whistle on this kind of government waste, fraud and abuse. You see, when Congress gave federal employees whistleblower protection with the landmark Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, it exempted the FBI, CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies from protection. Keep in mind these are the people the government trusts with our most critical national security missions and secrets, yet they have the least protection when they report government incompetence and wrongdoing within these agencies.
The national security loophole for whistleblower protection is incredibly dangerous because our law enforcement and intelligence agencies carry a heavy responsibility and wield extraordinary power over ordinary Americans with very little public oversight or accountability. Errors and abuse within these agencies magnify the risks -- both for our security and our civil liberties -- and studies show that insiders are often in the best position to identify problems early. But it is becoming clear that insiders aren't reporting, at least in part out of fear of retaliation. A 2009 Department of Justice Inspector General survey (pdf) found that 42 percent of FBI agents don't report all of the misconduct they see on the job, and 18 percent never report any.
Congress needs access to information about mismanagement and misconduct within the intelligence community, both classified and unclassified, in order to perform its constitutional duty to check abuses of power and ensure our security is being adequately protected. But Congress cannot perform effective oversight unless informed federal employees and contractors are willing to tell the truth about what is happening within these agencies. And we can't expect them to come forward if it will cost them their jobs or result in prosecution.
You can help the conscientious men and women of the intelligence community get the protection they need so they can protect us better. Tell your members of Congress to stop bickering over whether and when intelligence bureaucrats mislead them in official briefings -- it has long been clear they do -- and instead empower the agents within the intelligence community to tell the truth about waste, fraud and misconduct by protecting them from retaliation. Whistleblower bills in the House and the Senate have stalled, largely but not entirely over the extent of protections that will be provided to intelligence community employees. Tell your members of Congress our national security can't wait; they need to pass strong whistleblower protections for the workforce that is charged with protecting us all.