WASHINGTON -- During President Obama's first term as president, Obama was criticized often for his tough stance against government whistle-blowers. The administration charged six people under the 1917 Espionage Act -- more than all past presidencies combined. "Leaks that favor the president are shoveled out regardless of national security, while national security is twisted to pummel leaks that do not favor him," wrote Peter VanBuren in TomDispatch, a liberal website.
Yet President Barack Obama signed legislation Tuesday that affords greater protection to federal employees who expose fraud, waste and abuse in government operations.
Capping a 13-year effort by supporters of whistle-blower rights, the new law closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for federal whistle-blowers. One loophole specified that whistle-blowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct.
The whistle-blower law makes it easier to punish supervisors who try to retaliate against the government workers.
The federal official who investigates retaliation, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, said that her office "stands ready to implement these important reforms, which will better ensure that no employee suffers retaliation for speaking out against government waste or misconduct."
Specific protections would be given to certain employees, including government scientists who challenge censorship. Workers at the Transportation Security Administration, who provide airport security, would be covered under the law for the first time.
The law also would clarify that whistle-blowers have the right to communicate with Congress.
To stop illegal retaliation, the law would make it easier to discipline those responsible, by modifying the burden of proof required when taking action against those trying to punish whistle-blowers. Also, the Office of Special Counsel, which was established to protect federal employees, would no longer be liable for attorney fees of government managers if the office does not prevail in a disciplinary action.
Obama: An Unlikely Ally?
For years, whistle-blower advocates have pushed for such reform, according to Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which represents whistle-blowers. "This reform took 13 years to pass because it can make so much difference against fraud, waste and abuse. Government managers at all levels made pleas and repeatedly blocked the bill through procedural sabotage."
But the bill sailed through Congress once some senators who previously worked in secret to block a vote dropped their opposition.
With the number of people it's charged under the Espionage Act, the Obama administration was an unlikely ally, however. Prior to Obama's presidency, only three government workers had been prosecuted under that act. But to some, the Obama administration seemed to all too eager to go after government whistle-blowers who were endeavoring to expose wrongdoing.
In one recent case, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was charged for purportedly disclosing classified information to reporters who were wading into the debate over waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Kiriakou, who'd helped capture alleged al-Qaida leader Abu Zubaydah, became a public critic of waterboarding in 2007, saying, "We're Americans and we're better than this." He was sought out by reporters researching the CIA's interrogation techniques.
Ultimately, the federal government accused him of disclosing the identity of two former colleagues who participated in interrogating detainees. The authorities didn't stop there, reported The New York Times: Friends also said that the CIA "abruptly fired" his wife, an analyst who was on maternity leave. Kiriakou pleaded guilty in October to a charge of revealing the name of a colleague to a reporter.
"There's a problem with prosecutions that don't distinguish between bad people -- people who spy for governments, people who sell secrets for money -- and people who are accused of having conversations and discussions," said Abbe Lowell, a Washington defense lawyer for Stephen Kim, an intelligence analyst who also was charged under the Espionage Act. The State Department employee was accused of revealing classified information as a result of his conversations with the news media. Kim has pleaded not guilty.
Perhaps most famously, the Defense Department also pursued a case against Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army private accused of sending documents to the Wikileaks website. (The Associated Press said that a military judge on Thursday reportedly approved terms under which Manning would plead guilty to seven charges of sending classified documents to site.)
Last year, Obama met with advocates of open government who told the president that "leak prosecutions were undermining his legacy," according to Bloomberg. Obama reportedly responded that he was concerned about leaks that could "impact the troops."
With this new law, however, the Obama administration may discover that it has opened the door to people who want to expose wrongdoing closer to home.
UPDATED on Nov. 29, 2012 by AOL Jobs with background on the Obama administration's prosecution of whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act and a military judge's action in the Bradley Manning case.
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