By DANA LIEBELSON
Let’s say that you work for a government agency, and happen to witness fraud, waste or abuse—but you know that your employer is reading your email, and might use the information to retaliate against you. Would this affect your decision to blow the whistle?
That’s the concern Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner raised in a memorandum sent last week to government agency heads and general counsels. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC)—which is responsible for investigating whistleblower claims—asked agencies in the memorandum to evaluate their monitoring practices to ensure employees are not discouraged from exercising their legal rights to disclose wrongdoing.
From the memorandum:
Agency monitoring specifically designed to target protected disclosures to the OSC and Inspectors General is highly problematic. Such targeting undermines the ability of employees to make confidential disclosures…The same risk is presented by an employing agency’s deliberate targeting of an employee’s emails or computer files for monitoring simply because the employee made a protected disclosure.
According to The Washington Post, the memorandum comes five months after the paper reported that “the Food and Drug Administration secretly monitored the personal e-mail of a group of scientists who warned Congress and others that the agency was approving medical devices they considered dangerous.”
Lerner and the OSC should be lauded for taking action on this important issue. POGO Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury said, “This is an extremely important reminder of whistleblower rights and strong recommendation for agencies heads to rein in managers who may be intimidating whistleblowers or violating the law. It is especially welcome given the new directive to amp up monitoring for leaks in the intelligence community.”
On June 7, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, issued a directive that aims to prevent unauthorized disclosures by requiring greater coordination between counterintelligence and the security activities of the intelligence community. This includes the troublingly broad requirement that “all personnel with access to national intelligence… shall be continually evaluated and monitored.”
As Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News points out, “since there are more than a million government employees and contractors holding Top Secret clearances who are potentially eligible for access to intelligence information, it seems unlikely that any significant fraction of them can literally be “continually monitored.”
Nevertheless, this directive raises the same questions that Lerner’s memorandum does: if whistleblowers feel that their channels for communication are being compromised, they may be less inclined to blow the whistle when they witness misconduct.
According to Canterbury, “Naturally we should expect some reasonable monitoring in the intelligence community to thwart legitimate threats to our national security. Our concern is that these workers do not have adequate protections against retaliation for lawfully blowing the whistle on wrongdoing. There is a real intimidation factor in being watched and subject to unknown consequences without any guarantee of due process rights or a fair hearing.”
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow
Image from Flickr user Mauropm