by GAP President Louis Clark
There has never been a time in recent years when the federal government has so blatantly tried to stop crucial information from reaching citizens. As a result, the government is undermining the basic right of all Americans to know what civil servants are doing to advance the public interest. Increasingly, all that stands between society and dire consequences are brave civil servants who are willing to tell the truth.
Whistleblowers are able to reverse top-level decisions, undermine multibillion-dollar contracts, and derail the plans of the largest corporations. Unfortunately, on far too many occasions, their claims are not heeded early enough, increasing the likelihood of public hardship or personal tragedy.
Just recently, British Petroleum has had to limit severely the amount of oil pumped to the United States from Alaskan production lines. Economists are unsure just how badly this situation may affect average American consumers in terms of gas prices (which have already increased), but most have pessimistic predictions. If BP workers had been listened to years ago, when they first discovered the problem and brought it up internally, this now inevitable drain on the economy would not have occurred.
Corporate executives, however, focus more on short-term profits to raise stock prices during their tenures. The unlimited legal and lobbying resources at their command keeps numerous internal disclosures locked up in legal purgatory for years, creating a chilling effect for future industry insiders who debate about coming forward with information beneficial to the public.
This same principle holds for government bureaucrats, who deeply desire that no scandals happen on their watch. Many try to ignore the problem, sweep it under the rug, or even worse, meet it with resistance. But these unethical and immoral choices to suppress, of which there are several examples, have even graver consequences.
Dr. David Graham, a top scientist with the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Office of Drug Safety, revealed important risks associated with the arthritis drug Vioxx. He also exposed the significant influence of the pharmaceutical industry on FDA decisions and the inadequacy of the monitoring of drugs that are approved and on the market. When taking this information to FDA supervisors, he was harassed and threatened. In all, a minimum of 40,000 Americans died from Vioxx-induced heart attacks before being warned of the drug's possible side effects. If Graham had been listened to earlier, many lives would have been saved.
Rick Piltz worked at the U.S. Climate Change Science Program. He blew the whistle on the White House's improper, politically motivated editing of scientific reports on global warming. His leaked documents show hand-written edits that a White House official -- and former lobbyist for the oil industry -- made in order to weaken evidence of global temperature rise. If the Bush administration had tried to structure its policies on science, instead of the other way around, America might have been a leader in combating global warming instead of a laggard.
Frank Terreri, a federal air marshal, has been protesting the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) for years. While he vehemently argued on behalf of marshals everywhere that FAMS policies resulted in exposing undercover officers, his supervisors fought his allegations, lied to Congress about them, and investigated him repeatedly. Luckily, this evident lack of security did not result in catastrophe, and a federal Homeland Security investigation has been ordered.
As this sampling illustrates, whistleblowers are extraordinary catalysts for critical change. But many more truth-tellers have not and will not stand up, suffering at the hands of an intimidation game unfairly directed at them. Due to the shortsightedness and foul intentions of supervisors, workers by themselves often cannot turn the tide on government secrecy, corruption, and malfeasance. That is why it takes a small army of supporters to demand accountability -- public interest organizations, independent and opinionated legislators, enterprising reporters, and most importantly, an aroused and angry public.
For our democracy to grow and flourish, citizens must do more than just vote. Between elections they must register their concerns directly to their representatives, support those who stick up for the whistleblowers, and join in the day-to-day struggle for truth in America. It is only then that government and corporate leaders will truly understand.