In an unusual move, whistleblowers from the FBI, National Security Agency, Defense Department and Energy Department were allowed to testify before the House Government Reform National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations Subcommittee. Congressional committees usually hear from senior agency managers, not rank-and-file employees.
The whistleblowers recounted their allegations and how they were retaliated against, in some cases by having their security clearances revoked or their careers ruined. They said agency managers seemed more focused on cover-ups and retaliation than investigating allegations or addressing exposed problems.
"I became a whistleblower not out of choice, but out of necessity -- necessity to tell the truth," said Army Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who said he was retaliated against after reporting pre-9/11 intelligence failures.
Shaffer is scheduled to testify in a closed session Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., said the session will be "a hearing that is going to change . . . the nature of this city."
Weldon said Congress needs to pass legislation to protect workers who come forward with critical information.
"If we don't fix the problem . . . then we're sending a signal to every other employee in the federal government not to speak up," Weldon said. "If we don't take action, we're all in danger."
Other whistleblowers said their allegations were never fully investigated.
"I'm here today to tell you about a system that is broken," said Mike German, who resigned from the FBI after reporting that bureau agents and managers mishandled a major counterterrorism case in 2002 and falsified records. The Justice Department inspector general confirmed German's allegations that the case was mishandled and records were falsified, and that he was retaliated against after making his allegations. But the IG said the case was not a counterterrorism case.
"I am here not because I think you can help me," German said. "I am here because your actions are needed to fix a broken system before another counterterrorism investigation is about to fail."
He added: "This is not a question of balancing security interests against liberty interests. It's a mater of competence and accountability."
Army Spc. Samuel Provance said he believes the military has covered up the extent of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and has not adequately investigated those abuses. Provance was one of the first military soldiers to come forward with allegations of abuse at the prison.
"I am concerned about what the Army is becoming," he said. "Honor cannot be achieved by lies and scapegoating. Honor depends on the truth."
Several lawmakers said they would support new legislation to give stronger protections to employees and contractors at national security and intelligence agencies. Those employees are exempt from protections under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act.
"Seldom in our history has the need for the whistleblower's unfiltered voice been more urgent, particularly in the realms of national security and intelligence," said subcommittee chairman Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "But those with whom we trust the nation's secrets are too often treated like second-class citizens when it comes to asserting their rights to speak truth to power."
By a party-line vote, the House Government Reform Committee rejected a measure last fall that would have provided stronger protections for national security whistleblowers. At the time, committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said he did not know enough about national security issues.
Some whistleblower advocates were outraged over Davis' statement, especially since his committee includes a subcommittee on national security.
"My hope is that ... we can work together on a bipartisan basis to introduce new legislation that will provide national security whistleblowers with basic protections," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said during Tuesday's hearing. "No one with a security clearance should have to fear that his or her clearance can be pulled in retaliation for truthfully reporting corruption or abuse."