Congress Considers Protection for Whistleblowers

Two lawmakers are introducing legislation Thursday to outline oversight jurisdiction at the Federal Bureau of Investigation that would also include increased protections for law enforcement agents who blow the whistle on misdeeds in federal agencies.

Federal whistleblowers, members of Congress and activists turned out Wednesday to push the proposal that would bolster protections for workers who speak out about government wrongdoing that compromises national security.

"Bureaucracies have an instinct to cover up misdeeds and mistakes, and that temptation is even greater when a potential security issue can be used as an excuse," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is introducing a bill with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to strengthen the current Whistleblower Protection Act.

Critics contend that, despite the current law, several whistleblowers inside the federal government have been ignored or fired after warning their bosses of massive security and information lapses at the nation's airports and borders. It is those same gaps that have been partly blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"Since Sept. 11, government agencies have placed a greater emphasis on secrecy and restricted information for security reasons, understandably so in some cases," Grassley said. "But, with these restrictions come a greater danger of stopping the legitimate disclosure of wrongdoing and mismanagement."

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced companion legislation Wednesday in the House of Representatives.

The Paul Revere Freedom to Warn Act, named after the Revolutionary War hero who first warned of British military action against the American colonists, would protect the whistleblowers who point out lapses and misdeeds at federal agencies. "They are the true patriots, and I want to thank them, salute them and help them," Israel said.

The congressman and several whistleblowers were joined Wednesday by Frank Serpico, the former policeman whose testimony in the early 1970s uncovered the largest police corruption scandal in American history. Among others in attendance were Darlene Catalan, a former U.S. Customs agent whose book, Badge of Dishonor, charges the agency repeatedly ignored warnings about the vulnerability of America's borders; and Bogdan Dzakovik, a 14-year veteran of the Federal Aviation Authority who says the Sept. 11 attacks could have been avoided had the agency responded to his team's repeated warnings about security at the nation's airports.

"The individuals who occupied the highest seats of authority in FAA were fully aware of this highly vulnerable state of aviation security, and did nothing," Dzakovik told the audience.

The FAA declined to directly rebut his charges. "I think Bogdan is a good guy. He believes what he is saying, but he has a limited perspective," an FAA official, requesting anonymity, said. The official said it is not true Dzakovik's findings were never acted upon. "But that's his point of view, and it's understandable," the official added.

Under existing provisions of the Whistleblower Protection Act, the only recourse for whistleblowers that have been fired is the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. But attorneys present at Wednesday's event said barely one percent of the cases brought by whistleblowers to that court were successful.

That's because several loopholes in the law have made it unworkable, said Stephen M. Kohn, an attorney who defends whistleblowers and the author of Concepts and Procedures in Whistleblower Law. Kohn said government workers who have security clearances or work for sensitive areas like the FBI are exempt from protection.

"When a whistleblower goes to the government, it's almost always treated like treason," he said, no matter if that whistleblower hails from the private or public sector.

Kohn said a whole range of whistleblower laws, at both the state as well as the federal government level, are riddled with holes. But it's federal workers who face the toughest challenge, he said, arguing the Department of Justice in particular has long lobbied to keep protections at a minimum.

Justice Department officials did not return calls for comment.