Whistleblower Advocates Praise Senate-Passed Intel Reforms

“The idea is that if there is misconduct reported to one of these entities, the oversight entity would have some opportunity to do something about it," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said. “The idea is that if there is misconduct reported to one of these entities, the oversight entity would have some opportunity to do something about it," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The Senate’s vote last week to approve a package of intelligence community whistleblower protections was welcomed on Monday by whistleblower advocacy groups.

The fiscal 2015 Intelligence Authorization bill the chamber passed June 12 would expand and codify available rights for whistleblowers that President Obama laid out in the October 2012 presidential policy directive 19, which had not provided intelligence employees all of the same protections enjoyed elsewhere in government.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee who has been highly critical of intelligence community secrecy following the revelations of domestic surveillance made by then-contractor Edward Snowden, gave a floor speech explaining his support for the new reforms.

“Existing laws and regulations say employees of American intelligence agencies who are concerned about possible misconduct, such as waste and fraud and illegal activity, are allowed to report that, and these laws and regulations lay out channels for doing it,” he said. “The idea is that if there is misconduct reported to one of these entities, the oversight entity would have some opportunity to do something about it. Unfortunately, reporting misconduct by your colleagues or by your agency does not always work out so well. That is why rocking the boat and reporting misconduct can sometimes be hazardous for an individual’s career.”

When Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act in November 2012, House members successfully objected to its application to the intelligence community. But the language in the current Senate bill, though not contained in the House version still in committee, is expected to be accepted, sources said.

It would protect government workers against retaliation banned by the Whistleblower Protection Act for disclosures made within their agencies, to the Office of Inspector General, or to the congressional intelligence committees. It would extend free speech rights to workers holding security clearances, while establishing whistleblowing as an affirmative defense in legal proceedings, which remain controlled by agencies, while modifying legal burdens out of concern for national security.

Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, praised Wyden and Republican Susan Collins of Maine for “closing the last major loophole in whistleblower rights for government workers. This legislation is the first step toward a safe alternative to leaks for potential whistleblowers in the intelligence community. If finalized, it will be a landmark congressional action to create both free speech rights within intelligence agencies and protections against security clearance retaliation throughout the civil service. While not a final solution, it is the breakthrough paradigm shift to challenge abuses of power and corruption by intelligence agencies without risking threats to national security.”

Angela Canterbury, policy director at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said, “These usually disenfranchised truth-tellers may have statutory protections for the first time -- a real anti-leaks measure. We are encouraged by the results so far of the good-faith negotiations between the House and Senate Intelligence committees.”

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on pending legislation.

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