By Louis Clark, GAP President. This editorial also appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal

After 9/11, the President called on all Americans to come forward whenever they observe security threats. At every major airport in the nation, there are constant reminders over public address systems to report abandoned parcels and other suspicious activities. In a dictatorship, any such government recruitment of informants is both disquieting and threatening. In a democracy, it is akin to the government sharing responsibility with citizens for the common defense. That’s not unlike national hero Paul Revere’s courageous gallop through the streets of the rebellious colonies to warn of threats on the horizon. National security is the responsibility of every citizen.

Courageous and patriotic whistleblowers have responded to the president’s call to report security vulnerabilities in record numbers. They have raised these up threats as well as abuses of authority and other forms of corruption within their government workplaces, with their superiors at military facilities, to their members of Congress and occasionally, out of frustration, to the media.

As a result our elected officials and we Americans have learned about major problems needing immediate attention. The list is long and includes:

  • The torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib;
  • The vulnerability of nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear power plants to terrorist attack;
  • The fudging of antimissile defense testing to hide the fact that it is not possible to tell the difference between decoys and armed missiles;
  • The failure of the government to adequately inspect incoming ships and cargoes at our major ports;
  • The failure of the FBI before 9/11, because of bureaucratic myopia, to allow its agents to investigate suspicious activity at flight schools;
  • Past and current security concerns at not only our ports, but also our borders and airports.

Government studies, congressional hearings, numerous investigations, and presidential commission findings have backed up the whistleblowers on this list of major security deficiencies. Unfortunately, no whistleblower has yet emerged to explain how, despite a massive expenditure of effort and resources, none of the intelligence agencies were able to conclude that Iraq lacked weapons of mass destruction.

Adding up all the key information that we know because of whistleblowers, and considering the intelligence disaster because of a lack of whistleblowers, one comes to one logical conclusion: Whistleblowers are critical for national security. Without them we are not only at risk, we could also be making vital decisions, such as going to war, under false pretenses. As we do with any other true national treasure, we must preserve whistleblowers from harm. The reason none emerged from the ill-fated intelligence meltdown on weapons of mass destruction is simple. Surveys of public employees have reported that there are two primary reasons potential whistleblowers who witness corruption do not step forward. They fear reprisal and secondly, they presume that speaking out is futile because key government officials will not listen or do anything about the identified problem.

Fear of reprisal is justified. Nearly all of the key national security whistleblowers who have come forward since 9/11 were threatened, harassed, disciplined, or fired. Some who saved their careers did so only because powerful members of Congress stepped up and defended them against irate bosses. There are currently no legal whistleblower protections because nearly all of the 15 intelligence agencies are exempt from regular civil service legal protections. But within the regular federal civil service system, those protections have ceased to exist anyway. Not only federal employees, but also all those who care about national security, are victims of a series of administrative decisions that by law cannot be reviewed in any federal court other than the US Supreme Court, which refuses to hear them.

A bipartisan coalition in Congress is determined to act. It recognizes that to preserve national security federal employees must be free to warn about imminent dangers and Congress must remain a viable place to take these warnings. The legislation that is emerging will provide legal protection to federal employees who report to Congress about national security threats. These modern-day “Paul Reveres” must have the right to defend themselves in federal court.