CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. - More than two dozen national security whistleblowers, lawyers and public interest advocates gathered Monday night in a pristine fishing village on Virginia's eastern shore to discuss strategies for strengthening legal protections against reprisal and to exchange stories.
Participants in the three-day National Security Whistleblowers Conference included former and current employees of some of the government's most secretive agencies, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, CIA and FBI. The event was funded by five advocacy groups: the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, the Project on Government Oversight, the Fund for Constitutional Government, the Cavallo Foundation and the Fertel Foundation.
As night settled over Chincoteague Bay, NSA whistleblower Russ Tice chatted with noted national security lawyer Roy Krieger. Members of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition, a group founded by FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, plotted legislative and publicity strategies. And Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War to the media in 1971, met the latest military whistleblower on the block: intelligence specialist Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer, who has stirred up a frenzy in Washington by reporting that a classified Army program identified one of the main ringleaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks more than a year before they occurred.
Most of the whistleblowers at the conference said they were ardent conservatives or lifelong Republicans. But their experiences have brought them into a world where they mingle with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic lawmakers.
Conference participants said they'd spent the better part of their careers in government or military service, and had never thought about going public with their allegations, which ranged from suspected espionage inside national security agencies to criminal misconduct by superiors. But efforts to report allegations and complaints through their formal chains of command failed, they said, leaving them no alternative but to become public whistleblowers.
Through panel discussions and keynote speeches, participants told their stories, heard from organizations that support whistleblowers, and discussed legal, legislative and media strategies. They talked of building a sustained movement that will help career civil servants, military service members and government contractors report wrongdoing.
"We are here to stay," Edmonds said. "We have different ideologies, we have different personalities, we have different agencies, but we have a common goal."
That goal, they say, is government accountability, which includes strong congressional oversight and protections for employees who disclose suspected wrongdoing at national security agencies.
Perhaps more than anything, though, the conference was a way for whistleblowers to lend each other moral support. Reporting wrongdoing can be a lonely and intimidating experience, participants said. Most felt they were penalized and their careers ruined for reporting their allegations. Some said they have gone deeply in debt as a result of litigating complaints. Most whistleblowers don't win their complaints or lawsuits, participants said.
"The key thing is being able to stay with it, and that it is a long-term struggle," said former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington, whose 1997 book, Gassed in the Gulf, was one of the first to comprehensively examine Gulf War syndrome.
"At the end of the day, if you're going to make a decision to move forward, you either have to do it relatively clandestine and try to shield your involvement, or you have to make a decision to go completely all the way outside the organization and go public in order to try to shine the spotlight on the problem," Eddington added. "Trying to do something in between is the worst of both worlds, because nobody's in a position to protect you and you wind up being in a position of maximum exposure."
Meetings like this one, however, give whistleblowers and advocacy organizations hope, said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director.
"If nothing else, it's tremendously important for these isolated individuals to get together and realize they're not alone and they are suffering some very similar situations," Brian said.