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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Chanute Tribune (KS) - The President Has No Use For Whistleblowers

November 02, 2006
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By GAP President Louis Clark. This op-ed also ran in the Topeka Capital-Journal and United States Guantanamo News.

A new book may shed light on President George W. Bush's true feelings toward whistleblowers, or at least toward those "leakers" who expose his administration's alleged illegal and questionable activity. According to the former Canadian prime minister's chief of staff, Mr. Bush explained how he would personally handle government leaks. Reportedly, Mr. Bush stated, "If I catch anyone who leaks in my government, I would like to string them up by the thumbs. The same way we do with prisoners in Guantanamo."

Although we can hope he was joking, the context of the statement and subsequent events demand that a hard look be taken at this remark. At the time of the meeting, March 2002, then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chr├ętien was in the midst of a whistleblower-exposed public scandal that would eventually sweep his party from power. Mr. Bush was at the height of his popularly, only to experience a similar crippling erosion of his public standing because of both anonymous and public whistleblowers.

It is ironic that Mr. Bush would cite the federal government's mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay for metaphorical purposes. At the time, few people other than the president knew how detainees were being abused at the facility. Two years after the start of the Iraq war, conscientious soldiers began to expose the routine torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and the Guantanamo alarms soon followed.

Look at the important truths we have learned from Mr. Bush's administration whistleblowers in recent years: White House officials were caught editing scientific reports on global warming, making $2 billion worth of scientific studies -- documenting the serious effects of climate change -- seem to produce questionable or unclear results. The illegal National Security Administration domestic surveillance program and the CIA's secret prisons in Eastern Europe revealed a systematic trampling upon basic privacy and inherent human rights. Food and Drug Administration officials tried to silence scientists who found severe -- in fact, fatal -- problems with the painkiller Vioxx. Undercover Federal Air Marshals were required to wear easily identifiable attire and follow predictable and obvious procedures before boarding commercial flights. The list goes on, with other major examples of malfeasance being exposed every few months.

Given the president's bitter experiences, it is not surprising that the White House reacted with extreme hostility this past summer when the Senate unanimously passed legislation restoring legal rights for federal government whistleblowers. Due to a Supreme Court decision in May, in which the president's judicial nominees turned out to be the key swing votes, executive branch employees lost certain First Amendment free speech rights while on the job. In short, these employees are obligated to report corruption, but can now be legally fired for doing so. The Senate, correctly, acted quickly to fix the problem.

Despite Senate unity and support from powerful committee chairmen in both chambers of Congress, the White House, aided by House leadership, lobbied intensely in the back rooms of Congress to kill the whistleblower rights legislation.

The White House didn't want this story to get out. Their lobbyists offered secret objections to the reform, parroting long-standing arguments from the Department of Justice denying the need for new protections. Two Republican members of Congress characterized these notions as "tired," "old," and "more out of touch with reality year after year."

The administration could not have won this debate if it were conducted in full view of the public -- one fed up with the secrecy this president so covets. Whistleblower rights were snuffed out behind closed doors because of the long arm of the president, who successfully convinced House leadership to remove them from a legislative package.

The Canadian prime minister failed to heed and embrace whistleblowers, not realizing that suppressing the truth continually fails in the long run. He met his consequences three years ago. Our president has still not learned that lesson, and in all likelihood, never will. Although Mr. Bush has not followed through on his threat to string employees up, he has hurt federal workers by sabotaging Congress' efforts to protect them.

Government whistleblowers should be applauded, not fought. Telling the truth should be encouraged, not suppressed. These workers are critical to keeping government honest and to avoid future catastrophes.

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