Saturday, December 04, 2004

Column 13: Whistleblowers

When Whistles Blow
by Ed Gurowitz

Even before the official start of the Administration’s second term, there are signs pointing to the possibility of hostility toward legitimate dissent in the coming four years. This goes beyond the ongoing campaign by the Right to paint those who disagree with them on the war, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research as unpatriotic, anti-God, and worse, and it goes beyond the Religious Right calling in chits for its supposed role in re-electing the President. CBS and NBC have refused to run an ad by the United Church of Christ affirming its policy of welcoming all including gays, and government employees who would act to protect the public are being systematically suppressed.

Earle Dixon, a Carson City resident, was the Project Manager for hazardous waste management and compliance at the Anaconda Mine in Yerington. Anaconda is an abandoned copper mine covering some 3,600 acres, where acid run-off and waste rock containing uranium and other toxic metals have been disposed of in unlined ponds. The mine has had numerous owners, and half of its land is on public property managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Dixon worked for the BLM coordinating with a number of agencies. He was fired by BLM Nevada director Bob Abbey on October 5th, after less than a year on the job. According to Dixon’s complaint in a Federal whistleblower suit against the BLM, he had presented Abbey with mounting evidence of contamination and worker exposure.

If Dixon’s case were singular, we might ignore it; unfortunately it is far from unique. Organizations such as the Project on Government Oversight have documented case after case of whistleblowers being threatened and suppressed by the agencies they work for, and the Federal Whistleblower Protection Act has been so weakened by what the Administration would characterize in other contexts as “activist judges,” that it is almost more dangerous than if there were no such law - it provides an appearance of protection where there is none, effectively luring whistleblowers out into the open where they can be picked off. There are bills under consideration in Congress to fix the Act, but the White House is actively attempting to stall this legislation to let it die, Federal courts have found major loopholes in the present Act’s protection and have set a standard of “irrefutable proof” that is impossible for whistleblowers to meet.

This ruthless suppression of those who would attempt to protect the public is not limited to the environment. It was a whistleblower, Coleen Rowley (Time Magazine’s 2002 co-Person of the Year), who exposed the FBI’s failure to heed clear evidence of terrorist plots before 9/11, yet this administration has systematically attacked whistleblowers, including in the FBI. Robert Wright, an FBI Special Agent, reported weakness in his antiterrorism unit, and was met with investigations aimed at silencing or discrediting him. Richard Levernier reported serious security problems at nuclear weapons sites and was stripped of his security clearance, effectively ending his employment. And these are just two examples among many.

It takes enormous courage for anyone to step forward and make incompetence and malfeasance public, particularly in government agencies. Doing so is unlikely to be met with approval and they can expect to be attacked and vilified by those at whom their finger is pointed. Yet few would deny that the Coleen Rowley and others have done an enormous public service with little or no expectation of personal reward. As Ms Rowley and others told Congress recently, “It is unrealistic to expect that government workers will defend the public if they can’t defend themselves.”

As the President populates his new Cabinet with yes-people and the extreme right moves to suppress any public discussion of issues it finds disagreeable, it is more important than ever that the protective devices that have been built into our system over the years be themselves protected and strengthened. Remember, to paraphrase the great Conservative Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. If you are interested in learning more about this, I recommend the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsible (PEER),

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