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Earlier this month, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) – a longtime supporter of whistleblower rights – objected to two Treasury Department nominees due to his concerns about the implementation (or lack thereof) of the IRS whistleblower reward program in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. Grassley said in a floor statement:
My support for the final confirmation of these nominees will depend on both Treasury and Internal Revenue Service responses to questions I have posed regarding their implementation of the tax whistleblower program. I rewrote the statute in 2006 to encourage whistleblowing on big-dollar tax cheats. However, nearly six years since those changes were enacted, Treasury has yet to issue much needed regulations and IRS has paid less than a half dozen awards under the new program.
The much-needed whistleblower-reward program has instead been used against whistleblowers instead of in favor of them. Meanwhile, UBS whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld is set to be released from prison next week after an usually harsh sentence. Despite the fact that Birkenfeld shattered decades of Swiss bank secrecy when he approached investigators about a UBS tax evasion scandal involving thousands of illegal offshore accounts and billions of U.S. dollars. Instead of targeting UBS "kingpin" Martin Liechti, the Justice Department turned on Birkenfeld.
I wrote extensively about Birkenfeld's case at the time of his sentencing. (here, here, here, and here). After complaining internally to UBS for two years, in June 2007 Birkenfeld voluntarily met with Justice Department prosecutors and an IRS Special Agent during three full days in which he provided unprecedented and voluminous information about UBS’s cross-border and offshore business activities, the UBS offices and private bankers that were directly involved, and the details of 19,000 UBS accounts for its American customers.
Birkenfeld had the potential to change an entire industry designed to evade U.S. taxes. Instead, the U.S. has been soft on UBS: letting bank kingpin Martin Liechti go free; under-fining the bank only $780 million for a multi-billion dollar fraud; settling for only 4,500 customer names of the 52,000 our government originally sought; and setting up an amateurish amnesty program that allowed the worst offenders to avoid criminal liability by paying fines. But worse, the Justice Department’s treatment of Birkenfeld is chilling would-be financial whistleblowers from coming forward, and will continue to do so for decades, to the detriment of the U.S. economy and all taxpayers—something that should be inconceivable during a global financial crisis.
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A Los Angeles Times editorial yesterday touted the benefits of focusing the "leak hysteria" in Washington on sources, who are often whistleblowers, rather than journalists.
But the public has been well served by a policy of focusing on leakers, not reporters. In its agitation over the latest leaks, Congress shouldn't disturb that balance.
The LA Times' position is a 180 degree flip flop from the stance the paper took just months after the indictment of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information. Back in 2010, the LA Times commendably articulated what I have been warning about since the Drake indictment – that the war on whistleblowers is really a war on the media:
In fact, this administration has pursued a quiet but malicious campaign against the news media and their sources, more aggressively attacking those who ferret out confidential information than even the George W. Bush administration did. . . . It is understandable that the administration has secrets and wants to keep them. But this campaign to flush out sources has the feel of chest-thumping and intimidation. It is one thing to protect information that might put Americans in danger or undermine national security; it is another to bring cases against whistle-blowers and others who divulge information to spur debate and raise questions about public policy.
The case against Drake consisted of trumped up charges aimed at silencing a whistleblower, rather than protecting classified information, and, almost a year after the LA Times criticized the prosecution, the case against Drake collapsed in spectacular fashion days before trial.
However, now that a few extreme members of Congress are talking about subpoenaing journalists, the LA Times has completely changed its tune on the war on whistleblowers, and willfully ignores critical facts it acknowledged in 2010.
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The Washington Post used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain one of the documents that formed the Espionage Act case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake. Former classification czar under G.W. Bush, J William Leonard, was slated to testify as a defense expert for Drake and called the case the most "deliberate and willful example of government officials improperly classifying a document," he had ever seen.
Leonard’s views, outlined in an affidavit, got some support with the release of a memo that formed part of the evidence against Drake.
The once "classified" document (scare quotes around "classified" as none of the information that formed the basis of the Espionage Act counts against Drake was actually properly classified) is now public. Ellen Nakashima of WaPo reported on innocuous information in the document that formed the basis of an Espionage Act charge against Drake for allegedly retaining the document improperly.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, also received the declassified memo from the NSA and said its disclosure reinforced questions raised about the prosecution.
“It’s utterly innocuous and practically devoid of meaningful content,” he said of the memo in an interview. “The idea that someone risked decades of prison over this document is an indictment of the agency and its classification policy.”
Leonard echoed those concerns in an e-mail to WaPo:
Leonard, speaking generally, said the system for classifying information is “becoming dysfunctional” and “clearly lacks the ability to differentiate between trivial information and that which can truly damage our nation’s well-being.”
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‘Chilling Effect’ Far-Reaching if Congress Fails to Act
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is publicly denouncing the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) implementation of an invasive and potentially illegal surveillance system instituted against employees trying to blow the whistle on critical safety issues surrounding medical devices.
The New York Times revealed the in-depth surveillance program in an explosive piece this past weekend. That article detailed how the agency monitored and “secretly captured thousands” of email communications between the whistleblowers and members of the media, Congress, attorneys, other regulatory officials, and the White House. Many of these communications are protected by various whistleblower laws. Subsequent reports show that agency lawyers approved these measures.
Amanda Hitt, GAP Public Health Director, and Director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign (which aims to protect whistleblowers at the FDA), stated:
“While the outcry by Congress and regulators thus far against the FDA is encouraging, the damage may have already been done. It’s hard to imagine how this fiasco won’t have a chilling effect on future FDA whistleblowers, and employees from all sorts of government agencies.
“This foray into espionage is nothing more than a service the agency provides to its 'clients.' Simply put, the FDA is spying on its own to protect the financial interests of the very corporations it is bound to regulate.”
GAP National Security & Human Rights Director Jesselyn Radack, who monitors the federal government’s use of surveillance, stated:
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The Washington Post expanded on this weekend's blockbuster New York Times article revealing the FDA's invasive surveillance on employees, reporters, and congressional staffers in an attempt to target seven scientist-whistleblowers who raised concerns about excessive radiation emitted from mammogram and colonoscopy machines.
This scandal includes an "enemies list," outsourced surveillance, spyware on dogs, and numerous other outrages.
The Washington Post reported that
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that his staff had learned that the spying was “explicitly authorized, in writing” by the agency’s top legal office.
Learning from the now-infamous Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel and my law school classmate John Yoo, who twisted the law to justify torture, the FDA's chief counsel apparently reviewed and authorized the surveillance in a secret memo. The FDA's defense is so lame it is hard to take it with a straight face:
She said that the surveillance was limited in scope . . . The FDA acknowledged Friday that targeted surveillance of five employees began in mid-2010, but it said that was not ongoing today, . . .
The fact that FDA targeted only the whistleblowers, whose communications included legally-protected disclosures to the media, congress, and the Office of Special Counsel, makes the monitoring more problematic, not less.
An FDA spokeswoman assured WaPo that:
“We did not impede or interfere with any employee communication to Congress, their staff, media or federal investigators,” she said.
But, the very act of monitoring IS interfering with the communications. If you know the FDA is monitoring your e-mails you might think twice about revealing to government investigators or Congress or the media that the FDA is disregarding the public health and safety of Americans.
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Attorney General Eric Holder recently complained in the wake of his congressional contempt citation – the first ever for an Attorney General – that Republicans are using him as a proxy for Obama in an election year.
In his first interview since Thursday’s vote, Holder said lawmakers have used an investigation of a botched gun-tracking operation as a way to seek retribution against the Justice Department for its policies on a host of issues, including immigration, voting rights and gay marriage. He said the chairman of the committee leading the inquiry, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), is engaging in political theater as the Justice Department tries to focus on public safety.
I agree that in the political theater of the contempt citation, Holder is being used as a proxy for Obama. However, Holder has done plenty in his tenure as Attorney General to upset both sides of the aisle, and ought to take some responsibility for the actions the Justice Department has taken under his watch.
Obama might have ordered the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without charge or trial, but it was Holder's Justice Department that drafted the legal memo "authorizing" the killing. It is also Holder's Justice Department that continually asserts absurd secrecy claims to keep the memo from the public and the drone program from court oversight.
Under Holder, the Justice Department has
- endorsed indefinite preventative detention and targeted assassination of Americans,
- continued to use the state secrets privilege to shut down lawsuits challenging torture and extraordinary rendition, and
- maintained pro-secrecy positions in high-profile Freedom of Information Act suits.
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After a short but unusually severe thunderstorm that roared through the D.C. area on Friday night, the entire Washington Metropolitan Area was thrown into chaos.
Three days later, countless traffic lights are still out, hundreds of thousands of residents are without power, including myself, grocery stores and gas station are closed for lack of power, and the federal government is encouraging employees to telework.
The Washington region braced for a sweltering workweek and challenging commutes on Monday, with hundreds of traffic lights still dark, temperatures expected to climb into the 90s and nearly a half-million area households still without power.
Is this the work of a terrible terrorist attack? No, it is the complete disaster non-preparedness a decade after 9/11. Despite the fact that billions if not trillions have been spent since 9/11 on counter-terrorism and so-called "homeland security" measures, one of the major terrorist targets, the nation's capital, cannot cope with a severe thunderstorm.
I received a message from PEPCO that most D.C.-area residents may not have power until next Friday at 11:00 pm - a full week after the storm hit. With temperatures this week set for the mid to upper-90s, that is a long time for residents to be with air conditioning, or fans, or refrigerators.
Two years ago, the Washington Post's comprehensive examination of the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on "homeland security," "Top Secret America," reflected that the D.C. metropolitan area was burgeoning with infrastructure, though apparently none of it focused on keeping the D.C.-area up and running after a severe thunderstorm.
Though the storm Friday was, as all the news outlets are repeating, an "unusually severe" thunderstorm, the same thing happened in 2003 with Hurricane Isabel - the thousands of D.C.-area residents were left without power for an entire week.
(I won't even get started on the climate change deniers.)
I am not the only D.C. taxpayer wondering, where are billions in "critical infrastructure" protection and "homeland security?" They are not going toward obvious solutions like putting power lines underground.
The D.C. area's responsiveness to unexpected events has not improved, but taxpayers' pockets have been drained to create an entire secret city of "national security" in northern Virginia. Making sure citizens have food and power in an emergency should be a top priority, not a distant second to security theater like taking our shoes off before getting on an airplane.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.