The law providing legal protection for whistleblowers passed 30 years ago and lawmakers from both parties agree those willing to come forward to report abuse or misdeeds are needed for accountability.
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The question of whether Julian Assange is a whistleblower may not be easy to answer, but there are many cases where the situation is much clearer, people who came forward to report abuse or misdeeds.
This week marks 30 years of a law that shields those who speak out from retaliation. It’s called the Whistleblower Protection Act. NPR’s Tim Mak reports the number of people exposing government wrongdoing has gone up and so has bipartisan support for protecting them.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: When you become a whistleblower, it feels like the whole world turns against you. You could lose your entire career for speaking out.
ROBERT MACLEAN: Everybody in my neighborhood and my family thought I was insane and I was fighting a futile fight.
MAK: That’s how it felt for Robert MacLean, a federal air marshal who, in 2003, told the public that the TSA canceled air marshal coverage on long-haul flights to cover budget shortfalls.
MACLEAN: It’s infuriating because you know what the truth is, and the officials know what the truth is. But they’re going to ignore you.
MAK: The TSA reversed its position, but it also fired him for releasing information about threats to U.S. aviation. MacLean fought it, winning a Supreme Court battle for reinstatement in 2015. Then he was fired again this year. Despite the risks, whistleblowers are key sources for Congressional and federal government watchdogs to uncover internal wrongdoing.
TOM DEVINE: The common characteristic is that they have to act on their knowledge in order to be true to themselves.
MAK: As the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a nonpartisan law firm that aids whistleblowers, Tom Devine has worked with about 7,000 over 40 years. He helps whistleblowers by providing them a legal defense and says he sees one common trait in their motivations for going public.
T DEVINE: If they don’t, what they concealed is something that’ll be haunting them like a cancer in their soul for the rest of their lives, particularly if there’s some consequences from them not speaking out.
MAK: And more are choosing to speak out. The number of whistleblowers in federal agencies have increased dramatically over the last 30 years. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller, is tasked with protecting federal whistleblowers from retaliation.
In 1988, the office received just 120 whistleblower disclosures. Last year, the OSC received 1,559 new cases, the fifth year they’ve received more than 1,500.
T DEVINE: When I first came to the Government Accountability Project, whistleblowers were generally considered nutty or traitors, you know, betraying their colleagues.
MAK: That’s Tom Devine again, who says they’re now being hailed as a check on government abuses. And as the cultural view towards whistleblowers have changed, so had the legal protections, which have been updated over the past 30 years and most recently in 2012.
Congressman Gerry Connolly, who chairs the oversight subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the law, says it’s essential for keeping government honest.
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GERRY CONNOLLY: I’m glad we have it. I think it is an important tool in accountability.
MAK: At a time where left and right can’t seem to agree on legislative priorities or even which topics are worthy of congressional investigation, they both agree on whistleblower protection but for different reasons. Pete Sepp from the conservative National Taxpayers Union explains it this way.
PETE SEPP: As a fiscal conservative, whistleblower protection means taxpayer protection.
MAK: And here’s Shanna Devine from the progressive advocacy group Public Citizen.
SHANNA DEVINE: Whistleblowers are the public’s eyes and ears to abuses of power that betray the public trust.
MAK: This consensus is a strong assurance of keeping or even strengthening these safeguards in years to come. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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