Badge Of Courage

Whistleblowers aren't the most popular lot among managers and co-workers, but the government needs them.


ight months after Sept. 11, FBI agent Coleen Rowley seized the nation's attention with her sensational memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller. The public was riveted by her allegations that top FBI officials had shaded and skewed the facts of the investigation into the attacks.

Despite claims that she tried to direct her complaints through the appropriate chain of command, Rowley ultimately chose to work outside the system. Anticipating that the FBI would suppress her allegations, Rowley provided a copy of her memo to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Rowley feared reprisal. "Due to the frankness with which I have expressed myself . . . I hope my continued employment with the FBI is not somehow placed in jeopardy," she said in her memo.

It is not surprising that Rowley bypassed the primary channels for disclosure-the inspector general and the agency's Office of Professional Responsibility. Her memo criticized the Office of Professional Responsibility for applying a double standard, saying it insulated senior leaders while aggressively investigating and disciplining low-ranking personnel.

While the media canonized Rowley, managers shuddered. Whining to the boss is one thing. Leaking complaints outside the organization is another. Team players, most managers agree, would not air the agency's dirty laundry before Congress or the mass media.

Managers and executives often view whistleblowers as disgruntled employees, folks who don't play well with others, loners, or losers in the promotion sweepstakes. Consider Linda Tripp, whose secretive taping of her friend Monica Lewinsky's confidences and thinly veiled political agenda soiled her reputation in the mid-1990s, while prompting President Clinton's impeachment.

But to others, a whistleblower is a hero, willing to risk career and conformity for the greater good. In fact, Rowley has been compared with Sherron Watkins, the committed Enron employee whose anonymous memo to CEO Ken Lay made headlines last year. Watkins believed that sophisticated conspirators within Enron kept Lay in the dark about their questionable business transactions.

Whistleblowers often are flawed. Rowley is no exception. She concedes that, on Aug. 22, 2001, her own "pithy" advice in a hurried e-mail discouraged an attorney from seeking a search warrant against Zacarias Moussaoui, who was suspected of involvement in the 9-11 attacks. Rowley said in her memo: "I now wish I had taken more time and care to compose my response."

But who said whistleblowers must be perfect? Our government benefits from whistleblowers of all shapes and sizes.

The public, government employees, and those who work with the government can help understaffed and overburdened regulators fulfill their enforcement responsibilities.

The law protects government and private whistleblowers from recrimination. Congress frequently offers certain types of whistleblowers the potential for huge monetary rewards. For example, the qui tam provisions of the 1986 False Claims Act Amendments permit a whistleblower to sue in the name of government and, if successful, receive a healthy share of the government's monetary recovery.

Yet whistleblowers and watchdog officials are neither universally appreciated nor applauded. "Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the citizens bringing such actions frequently have been special interest organizations with priorities of their own, often not consistent with those delineated by Congress. . . . [A] healthy skepticism about their motives . . . is appropriate," former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh wrote in the introduction to Citizen Suits and Qui Tam Actions: Private Enforcement of Public Policy by James T. Blanch et al. (National Legal Center for the Public Interest, 1996).

But who better to expose fraudulent use of the government's funds than contractors, health care providers or scientists working on government grants? Granted, qui tam is imperfect. Justice's failure to routinely dismiss frivolous suits sometimes leads to a form of extortion because firms prefer nuisance settlements to messy, public trials. But this failure does not indict the entire system. The balance is precarious, because monitoring is tricky.

In fact, whistleblowing isn't confined to blatant dishonesty and fraud. Some management pathologies and organizational behaviors elude conventional detection, yet are uniquely susceptible to whistleblowing. Senior managers can be blind to the bloated bureaucracy, stifling careerism and conformity that fosters inefficiency. Rowley's memo raises these and similar impediments to accomplishing the FBI's mission. Rather than being well-positioned to ferret out these organizational flaws, managers sometimes create and foster them.

Despite legal protections, whistleblowers like Rowley take extraordinary risks, jeopardizing their jobs and future career prospects. A whistleblower is considered a sacred cow but treated like the office pariah. But to maintain the public's trust, the government needs whistleblowers. Federal employees and contractors must have integrity and police those who work for and with them. If they won't, who will?

Professor Steven L. Schooner teaches at The George Washington University Law School. He previously served as associate administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and as a Justice Department attorney.

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