What are "whistleblower" protections?

How does the law protect whistleblowers?
How does the law protect whistleblowers?

A person who wishes to come forward with damaging information about an institution is known as a whistleblower.

     There is a prominent, if unknown, government whistleblower in the news right now, stemming from President Donald Trump's July 25, 2019, telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. During the conversation, Zelensky said he wanted to purchase Javelin anti-tank missiles from the U.S., and Trump responded, "I would like you to do us a favor though..." In fact, Trump wanted two things. He asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a theory involving 2016 election interference and to probe the activities of Hunter Biden, who once served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company and is the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. The elder Biden, a Democrat, has launched a bid for the presidency.
     Employees in the White House situation room took notes during the conversation. And afterward, a member of the intelligence community, who noted that he or she didn't witness this conversation -- wrote a five-page complaint, available on the webpage of the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The complaint explained the official's concerns that Trump's actions pose risks to U.S. national security. 
     Trump has described the whistleblower's actions as treason. But the webpage for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence points out that officials have a responsibility to report such issues:
     "Over 240 years ago, on July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress unanimously enacted the first whistleblower legislation in the United States, proclaiming that 'it is the duty of all persons in service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which comes to their knowledge.'"
     A whistleblower discloses to an authorized recipient information that he or she "reasonably believes evidences wrongdoing," according to the Congressional Research Service. The need to hear what whistleblowers have to say is enshrined in U.S. law. Here is an overview of whistleblower law, along with links and references for further study:

     Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989: The law protects employees who come forward to expose government corruption. These employees "serve the public interest by assisting in the elimination of fraud, waste, abuse and unnecessary government expenditures," the law explains, and "protecting employees who disclose government illegality waste, and corruption is a major step toward a more effective civil service." 
      The law does this by "mandating that employees should not suffer adverse consequences as a result of prohibited personnel practices; and ... establishing that the primary role of the Office of Special Counsel is to protect employees, especially whistleblowers, from prohibited personnel practices."      

    Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998: The first law did not include members of the intelligence community. There were gaps that "many observers believed left whistleblowers vulnerable to reprisal," the Congressional Research Service recounts. In 1998, Congress approved whistleblower legislation specific to the intelligence community. The website Congress.gov summarizes provisions of the act this way:

  • An employee or contractor of the CIA who wishes to report an "urgent concern" to Congress should make the report to the inspector general of the CIA.
  • The inspector general acts on the information within 60 days and forwards the complaint to the CIA director.
  • The director is required to forward the information to the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Select Committee on Intelligence of the Senate within seven days after its receipt.
  •  An employee is allowed to contact the intelligence committees directly concerning such complaint or information in limited circumstances.
     This law specified a process for intelligence community whistleblowers to make complaints, but offered no protections, according to the Congressional Research Service.

   2012 Presidential Policy Directive 19: Signed by President Barack Obama, this provided protections against reprisal for making a complaint. Indeed, it sets up a structure for employees who feel they were not given a fair hearing. An officer of an executive branch agency cannot take "any action affecting an employee's eligibility for access to classified information as a reprisal for a protected disclosure."



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