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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

UDC Whistleblower Tour Stop Hosts Two Ridenhour Winners

Alison Glick, March 29, 2013

Tom_and_RickLast Friday, March 22, the University of District of Columbia law school hosted two nationally-renowned whistleblowers – Rick Piltz and Thomas Drake – as part of the American Whistleblower Tour. Piltz and Drake, both recipients of the prestigious Ridenhour Prize, told their stories of talking truth to power at the highest and, indeed most powerful, levels of the federal government.

Piltz, a former senior associate with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, blew the whistle in 2005 on the George W. Bush White House’s improper editing and censorship of global warming reports intended for the public and Congress. After decades working on climate science communication in Washington, Piltz was shocked to receive a fax containing hand edits of a report from his office. The “editor” – White House Counsel on Environmental Quality Chief of Staff Philip Cooney – was intent on taking out references to fossil fuel and human activity contributing to climate change. Cooney’s previous employer was the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's chief lobbying arm.

“This was the collision of science and politics,” Piltz observed. Speaking during the week of the Iraq War’s tenth anniversary, he explained how the Bush Administration was attempting to manipulate climate science to further its policy. Just as administration officials justified the invasion of Iraq, climate science officials were moving to “misrepresent intelligence to conform it to what they already decided to do anyway.” In this case, ignore the impact of human activity on climate change and fail to prepare for the repercussions.

Piltz resigned when it became clear that no one with the ability and authority to do so would stand against such political censorship. With the help of GAP, he then took copies of the hand-edited reports to The New York Times. Their publication of an explosive, front-page article resulted in Cooney’s resignation a few days later. Within days he was employed again at ExxonMobil.

Vindication for Piltz also came when he testified before Congress about political interference in climate science communications. He now directs a GAP-sponsored program, Climate Science Watch.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Thomas Drake was just starting out at the National Security Agency (NSA). As a senior NSA official he had taken an oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. But after that fateful September day – one Drake’s supervisor described as “a gift to the NSA” – billions more dollars began pouring in to the agency as part of the “War on Terror.”

Drake told how, in this culture, a data collection program named “Trailblazer” was developed that was costly, ineffective, and violated U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights to privacy. The program was supported by the NSA even though an alternative program that had none of those problems was available. His disclosures of such waste, fraud and abuse in the agency – first to his supervisors, then to Congress and the Dept. of Defense Inspector General – had no impact on the problem. He eventually took the information to the Baltimore Sun (sharing only unclassified information, which published an award-winning series about the “Trailblazer" program.

Drake was fingered by the NSA as a troublemaker, and marginalized personally and professionally. While such isolation and retaliation is not an uncommon part of whistleblowers’ stories, what happened to him in November 2007 was shocking. Around dawn, a dozen fully armed FBI agents raided his house and conducted a nine-hour search with his wife and son present. He had become the target of a Department of Justice “investigation” into a 2005 leak exposing the government’s warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens, even though he had nothing to do with it. He was called to a secret FBI facility where the DOJ’s chief prosecutor in the case warned him that he would spend the rest of his life in prison, unless he would cooperate with them. Drake refused to plea bargain with the truth.

With the new Obama administration in power, there was hope that such attacks on whistleblowers would end. Instead, Drake was indicted on 10 counts, including 5 felony counts under the Espionage Act – legislation mean to prosecute spies. “To say that they tried to break me is an understatement,” Drake observed about his prosecution, which financially bankrupted him.

But with the assistance of GAP, Drake’s case came to the attention of national media outlets like The New Yorker and 60 Minutes. With heightened public scrutiny and a number of rulings against the DOJ, the case against him collapsed just days before it was to go to trial. The judge lambasted the DOJ’s handling of the case, calling Drake’s treatment “unconscionable.” 

Why, then, would the DOJ bring its full weight down on one person trying to point out wrongdoing? Drake believes his case was meant to send a message about the establishment in our country of a national security state.

“Something must give when an attack on the Constitution meets the national security state. Unfortunately, what’s giving is our rights.”

While the retaliation and vindication aspects of both cases differ markedly, as Piltz observed about his and Drake’s experiences, “A whole town of knowledgeable people fell silent in the face of egregious violations. What happened to us doesn’t bode well for the future of the U.S.”

All the more reason why GAP’s work is more important than ever.

Watch highlights of the discussion here:

Alison Glick is Education Coordinator for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leadingwhistleblower protection and advocacy organization.