The Price of Blowing the Whistle

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Reporters follow whistleblowers on Capitol HIll (2005)

Photo by Linda Lewis

by Julia Davis  Edward Snowden set the world ablaze with revelations of overreaching surveillance, conducted by the American government against its own citizens. The excuse of “national security” often allows powers-that-be to avoid public scrutiny, effectively ending the discussion. However, in this scenario people feel personally violated and the debate is unlikely to cease anytime soon.

Many teeter on the verge of acceptance, but wonder out loud, “Why didn’t he do it the right way?” Numerous whistleblowers who acted “by the book” in reporting government corruption, fraud, waste and abuse could predict the most likely outcome for anyone who takes that scenic route. If Snowden researched the cases of national security whistleblowers (myself included), the precedent would likely deter him from playing by the rules.

Truth-tellers from all walks of life face treacherous obstacles in their way. Whistleblower protections are as elusive as an oasis in the desert. The agencies created to protect whistleblowers have been woefully inadequate for decades. Statistically, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) rules in favor of the government in nearly 99% of all cases.

National security whistleblowers are in a category of their own, since they don’t have any whistleblower protections whatsoever. This includes employees and contractors who don’t have access to classified information and merely serve in positions that are deemed to be “sensitive”. When they bravely report violations up the chain of command, to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) or to Congress, these whistleblowers are essentially committing unintended career suicide. Instead of investigating itself, the government targets the source of their embarrassment with all of their might.

I’ve personally experienced the kind of retaliation you might think happens only in the movies. I served as a federal law enforcement officer with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). One fine day, I followed the rules by reporting serious shortcomings in the processing of aliens from Special Interest Countries (SIC) with links to terrorist activities. The DHS irresponsibly failed to run checks, take fingerprints or enroll these applicants for admission into a national database specifically created to obtain and store information that could be instrumental in preventing a terrorist attack, The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). This system was designed to collect exactly the kind of information that would red-flag overseas travels of the Boston bombers.

As required by our manual, I reported suspicious entries of SIC aliens into the U.S. to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (FBI/JTTF). When I was approached by CNN, I declined to go public about my report, since it was never my intent to embarrass the agency. I merely wanted the problem to be addressed and investigated. The government’s reaction to press inquiries was markedly different. While I was striving to protect the agency, the DHS was actively working to destroy me.

In a matter of weeks, I became the subject of 16 investigations. That number eventually rose to 54 cases that were opened against me by the DHS. I also had to face two malicious prosecutions, two false imprisonments, referral to the IRS for retaliatory audits and levies, warrantless surveillance (including aerial surveillance with a fixed-wing airplane and a Blackhawk helicopter, vehicular surveillance with as many as 8 agents at a time, sneak-and-peek incursions via the Patriot Act, Internet monitoring, OnStar tracking and wiretaps), as well as a Special Response Team raid of my house that utilized 27 agents, armed with assault weapons, and a Blackhawk helicopter. The DHS started to refer to me as a “Domestic Terrorist”, simply for embarrassing them by making my whistleblowing disclosure to the FBI/JTTF. They attacked not only me, but also my husband, my parents and even my witnesses.

I am eternally grateful to everyone who stood by us during those trying times. Except for the attacks by the IRS that continue to this day, my husband and I prevailed against all odds.  We were declared factually innocent, obtained a court order for the return of our belongings, illegally taken by the DHS in the course of two warrantless searches and succeeded in our litigation that was settled by the agency shortly before the trial.

While the use of planes, helicopters, the manpower and other resources utilized by the government in this instance were quite unprecedented, the modus operandi is a constant thread running throughout many whistleblower cases. Selfless truth-tellers are subjected to retaliatory investigations, baselessly labeled a “threat to national security”, their homes get raided, their families harassed, their lives and careers end up in shambles. The mainstream media either blackballs their cases completely, or releases lackluster exposés. The hidden meaning behind such half-hearted coverage sends a chilling message, “This whistleblower is now destitute, out of a great job, without any future prospects or a chance for redemption. You don’t want to end up like that, do you? ” The answer is very predictable, prompting most people to shake their heads in disbelief, before they mindlessly move on to the next episode of the Kardashians.

Anyone who passionately condemns Snowden for not making his disclosure “the right way” would do well to research the cases of countless truth-tellers who paid a heavy price for doing the right thing. Take a good look at what happened to Daniel Ellsberg, William Binney, John Kiriakou, Shami K. Leibowitz, J. Kirk Wiebe, Frank Serpico, Julia Davis (yours truly), Thomas Drake, and many others. All of us have attempted to ensure that important issues would be addressed and corrected. Due to the complicity of mainstream media, the majority of whistleblowers are unable to bring about nationwide debates of the issues they expose. Snowden succeeded in bringing stunning levels of public awareness to the matters of paramount importance. He sacrificed his life in the process. Before jumping to conclusions, I implore you to fully comprehend the plight of whistleblowers. “We the people” have a moral obligation to support those who selflessly give up not only their job security, but also risk their very lives in order to protect our constitutional rights.

The views expressed above are solely those of the author(s).  Please contact the author(s) for permission to reproduce.
 Photo by Linda Lewis.

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