Executive branch agencies have learned well from the Obama administration's fixation on punishing whistleblowers
That the Obama administration has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers is by now well-known and well-documented, as is its general fixation on not just maintaining but increasing even the most extreme and absurd levels of secrecy. Unsurprisingly, this ethos — that the real criminals are those who expose government wrongdoing, not those who engage in that wrongdoing — now pervades lower levels of the Executive Branch as well.
Last night, McClatchy reported on a criminal investigation launched by the Inspector General (IG) of the National Reconnaissance Office, America’s secretive spy satellite agency, against the agency’s deputy director, Air Force Maj. Gen. Susan Mashiko. After Mashiko learned that four senior NRO officials whose identities she did not know reported to the IG “a series of allegations of malfeasant actions” by another NRO official relating to large contracts, Mashiko allegedly vowed: “I would like to find them and fire them.”
Moreover, after McClatchy published stories in June about the agency’s abusive and problematic use of polygraph tests to root out leakers, top agency officials made statements “taken as a threat that polygraphers who raise similar concerns about the agency’s practices — even to the inspector general — would be punished or criminally prosecuted as leakers.” As usual in today’s Washington, punishment is solely for those who expose high-level wrongdoing, and secrecy powers are primarily devoted to shielding the wrongdoers.
Today, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard reports on a complaint alleging very similar behavior at the Department of Interior. In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order requiring the primacy of objective science over ideology in policy-making. It was not until 2011 that the Interior Department got around to complying by creating the position of Scientific Integrity Officer — “to ensure and maintain the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities used in Departmental decision making” — and it then hired for that position a hydrologist, Dr. Paul Houser, who was previously an associate professor in George Mason University’s Geography and Geoinformation Sciences Department.
But only a few months later, Houser began experiencing serious problems within the agency when he raised substantial questions, on scientific and environmental grounds, about the administration’s proposal to remove dams from a river that flows through Oregon and California. Here, as Sheppard describes it, is what happened next:
When he raised those concerns to then-DOI press secretary Adam Fetcher, Houser says he was told that he should not write anything about them in any electronic correspondence. “He wanted a hard copy, no email,” says Houser, in order to avoid creating any internal correspondence that could be subject to a Freedom of Information Act request. (Fetcher is now the deputy national press secretary for Obama’s reelection campaign.) Houser says his boss, who was out of the office during the initial exchange, also chastised him for emailing other scientists working on Klamath regarding the release. “I was told that the secretary of interior wants to remove the dams, so my actions weren’t helpful,” says Houser.
His complaint did result in some minor changes to the press release, but his main concerns about the summary of the science were not addressed. And almost immediately after the incident, “I was systematically retaliated against,” he says. His position was changed from a permanent post to a probationary one. He was given a negative performance review and told he “wasn’t a team player.” In February 2012, his job was terminated.
(Evading legal transparency requirements is, like persecuting whistleblowers, a standard practice for the Most Transparent Administration Ever™: recently disclosed emails revealed that Jim Messina — then-former White House deputy chief of staff, now the Obama campaign manager – deliberately met with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry at coffee houses rather than the White House when drafting the health care bill, and used his personal rather than official email account to communicate with them, in order to evade record-preservation and transparency obligations). About the Interior whistleblower case, Sheppard notes: “Advocates for transparency and good science within government agencies point out the apparent irony in firing a guy hired to enforce scientific integrity for his attempts to do just that.”
This vindictive attack on whistleblowing as a means of shielding government corruption and deceit from accountability is anything but isolated. To the contrary, it’s one of the defining features of the Obama administration. The same mindset evident in these cases has driven the administration’s overall approach to secrecy and anti-whistleblower intimidation. As Atrios rhetorically asked last night about the satellite agency case: “Retaliating against whistleblowers. Where on Earth would someone get the idea that it was ok to do that?” In its reporting, the McClatchy article makes this connection clear:
The drama is unfolding as Congress debates whether to toughen anti-leak laws to crack down on classified information being provided to the news media. The Obama administration has responded by ordering that thousands of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement employees be questioned about media leaks when they’re polygraphed during security clearance screenings. In an unprecedented move, the administration also has criminally prosecuted numerous government employees for leaking. Whistleblower and media advocates fear that the aggressive efforts will have a chilling effect on the reporting of government wrongdoing but won’t stop classified information from being leaked when it’s politically advantageous to administrations.
It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the significance of this systematic attack on whistleblowers. In a nation in which government secrecy is close to all-consuming — in which the vast majority of government acts of significance take place behind a classified wall — whistleblowers remain virtually the only avenue left for learning of serious political wrongdoing. Moreover, the attack on whistleblowing, by design, seriously impedes investigative reporting; as Jane Mayer put it recently: “when our sources are prosecuted, the news-gathering process is criminalized, so it’s incumbent upon all journalists to speak up.” Worse still, allowing the Executive Branch to leak at will information that glorifies the President and his policies, while aggressively suppressing all information that does the opposite, is the classic recipe for propagandizing without limit. What these lower-level officials are doing in threatening and retaliating against whistleblowers may very well be criminal, but they’re adhering to a mindset clearly decreed from the top.