National Security Whistleblowers Could Win New Protections

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, and the committee ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., left, and the committee ranking member Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Susan Walsh/AP

One of the many government responses to this summer’s leaks from fugitive National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden could be a new set of tools to allow defense and intelligence agency whistleblowers to make controversial disclosures through official channels.

The Senate Intelligence Committee recently voted 13-2 to approve a fiscal 2014 intelligence authorization bill that would enhance oversight in the wake of Snowden’s revelations of what critics view as domestic spying in the name of combating terrorism. But the measure would also institute “new statutory protections that protect the ability of legitimate whistleblowers to bring concerns directly to the attention of lawmakers, inspectors general and intelligence community leaders,” a committee summary said.

To guard against a future Snowden, the bill would allow additional funds to deploy information technology detection systems across the intelligence community. And it would empower the director of national intelligence to strengthen the process of investigating and reinvestigating employees seeking access to classified information.

“With our debt at $17 trillion and growing, we face stark budget realities that demand wise and efficient use of taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., ranking member of the intelligence panel. “This year’s intelligence authorization bill achieves both objectives by providing clear guidance and appropriate resources to the intelligence community, while enhancing the committee’s oversight of vital intelligence activities.”

Added panel Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., “We recognize that budget reductions and sequestration are impacting our intelligence agencies, and Congress has a responsibility to ensure the DNI and other intelligence leaders have the resources and flexibility they need to protect the nation.”

Whistleblower advocates were pleased that the bill would restore provisions for intelligence workers under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act that the Republican-controlled House killed in prior years.

“This is the first step toward a safe alternative to leaks for potential whistleblowers in the intelligence community,” said Tom Devine, legal director for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project. “If approved, it will be a landmark congressional action to create free speech rights within intelligence agencies, and against security clearance retaliation throughout the civil service.”

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