November 3O th, 2016
Whistleblowers Without a Home
By Sharon McElhone
Yuliya Stepanova and her husband, Vitaly, a former Russian anti-doping official, blew the whistle on a widespread doping program before the 2016 Olympic games in Rio. Now Yuliya and her husband live in a secret location here in the United States. She was also not allowed to compete in the Rio games, denied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Edward Snowden blew the whistle on a global surveillance program run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance in full cooperation with telecommunication companies. After he unveiled the secret program, the U.S. Department of Justice levied two counts of espionage and charged him with theft of property. In 2013, he flew to Russia, and he remains living in a secret location there to this day.
The irony should not be lost. The U.S. government gave safe sanctuary to Russians Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanova, protecting them from backlash. At the same time, the Russian government provides Edward Snowden safe sanctuary because he faces charges of espionage from the U.S. government.
Neither the Stepanovas nor Edward Snowden have a home because whistleblowing lives somewhere in the dark, separate from activism and good, old-fashioned feedback. Most Americans understand the value of feedback and activism in order to ignite change and drive corrections within systems and society. Whistleblowing (internal or external), however, remains in another realm today even when it mirrors the acts of activism and feedback. Placing them all together in one category may be the next step forward for Americans all too familiar with the codes of silence and looking the other way in the face of what we know to be wrong. Retaliation against whistleblowers is real, even at the highest levels. My father wasn’t a whistleblower per se; however, in 1978 he caught a glimpse of what happens to some employees after they disclose wrongdoing. He worked on a missile program for the Navy and later developed satellite systems for the European Space Agency. In one incident, he spoke up when a non-U.S. contractor to the European Space Agency tried to sell a defective product to the U.S. government. His employer turned around and then actively sought to remove him from his job after the contractor complained. “They don’t defend you. They stand by and let you take the beating,” he remarked during a phone conversation.
It comes as little surprise that governing bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, Office of Special Council and the Court of Appeals among others also fail too many times to support those who come forward and expose wrongdoing. For example, the main task of the office of Special Council (OSC) is to uphold the merit system by protecting federal employees from reprisal for whistleblowing. But since 2000, the Merit System Protection board that decides their cases has ruled in favor of whistleblowers 3 times in 56 cases. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is the only court that settles appeals for whistleblower cases has ruled for whistleblowers in only 2 of the 203 cases. In short, our culture does not invest enough time into finding the answers that will change the environment to make it less antagonistic for whistleblowers.
Some have stepped forward. A press release posted last year in 2015 on Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa’s website announced the emergence of a Whistleblower Protection Caucus to raise awareness of the need to protect employees from retaliation. In 1988, Senator Barbara Boxer introduced the original Whistleblower Protection Act and on June 15th, 2016 joined a bipartisan group that passed new provisions to “strengthen protections for military whistleblowers, including sexual assault survivors…” according to a press release on Senator Boxer’s website.
The effectiveness of these provisions comes into play when a federal employee like Snowden is living in Russia and the United States government is waiting to extradite him on charges of espionage. He is not being invited home as the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and former contractor for the United States government who came forward to expose wrongdoing. He is a fugitive awaiting to be tried by his country. America still does not have a clear picture of the whistleblower and because fear and compassion are variables that change in the equation of how much protection a whistleblower should get, the whistleblower remains without real cover. The Merit System and Appeals Court precedent begs the question of whether protection for whistleblowers will come from the top down or the bottom up, whether a grassroots movement will lead to a change in the American consciousness rather than the rule of the land.
The existence of anonymous tip lines suggests that either it’s human nature for people to retaliate and we all have this innate understanding and/or people know that there is not enough protection for them. The Whistleblower Protection Act, as found on Wikipedia, states that “a federal agency violates the Whistleblower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee or applicant because of disclosure of information by the employee or applicant. Whistleblowers may file complaints that they believe reasonably evidences a violation of a law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”
Edward Snowden’s disclosure of a secret surveillance program to the public seemed to me at the time to be reasonable evidence of a system’s failure to protect the privacy of the American people and it exposed an abuse of power. So it’s difficult for me to understand the charges he faces now as something other than retaliation, which would be a violation of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. So far our governing bodies have shown an ability to weaken or strengthen the protections for whistleblowers by picking and choosing which truths are acceptable to unveil and which ones aren’t, and that inconsistency weakens the overall safety of our country and society, and creates uncertainty for Americans. On the eve of a budding bro-mance between Vlademir Putin and our newly elected President Donald Trump, Americans must continue to defend their rights and freedoms as part of the benefit of living in this country.
Whistleblowers are a thorn in the side of some people, and personally I cringe whenever one of my children snitches on the other. Yet, as an adult I believe that legitimate whistleblowing keeps our country and the world safer and that Americans can do a lot for themselves by embracing this as a form, no different than activism and feedback. It challenges wrongdoing and keeps a society on track and the brave men and women who engage in it need to be protected more at home.