What makes America safe? This fundamental question lies at the heart of current congressional debate over whether national security employees who expose wrongdoing should have the right to fight against retaliation.
Some in Congress believe that protecting national security whistleblowers will eventually translate into dangerously disseminating classified information. This is fear-mongering. The efforts of past intelligence whistleblowers have increased our safety when government managers are missing in action.
If you look at these employees who have been fired or harassed, you don’t find people who sought to reveal state secrets. Instead, you meet patriots trying to do their jobs protecting the public by acting as professionals, not bureaucrats.
Consider the case of Richard Barlow. During his distinguished CIA career, he helped the agency find and convict two agents in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons development department. Subsequently, he joined the Office of Nonproliferation in the Department of Defense. In 1989, Barlow then learned that his bosses were misleading Congress by failing to disclose that the planned sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan could potentially help that country deliver nuclear bombs. When he raised those concerns within his agency, he was stripped of his security clearance and labeled a risk. A Pentagon investigation exonerated him as a threat, but the government never reinstated his security clearance–destroying his career and depriving him of the right to an appeal.
Barlow did all he could to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, keep Congress informed, and make the world a safer place. And how was he thanked? To this day he has been denied government pension or health insurance. Pakistan now has its nuclear weapons, but Barlow has yet to get his vindication.
Or take George Sarris. In 2006, the 30-year Air Force mechanic followed what government posters said was his duty–to contact the Inspector General about bureaucratic misconduct. He reported that American reconnaissance aircraft deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t being properly maintained. This problem created the potential for in-flight fires, caused by not replacing fuel hoses that were 15 years past their lifespan. In response, the Air Force IG accused him of committing a crime by “stealing” evidence that they initially demanded he produce to prove his charges. The IG put Sarris under criminal investigation, stripping all job duties by suspending his security clearance. Reassigned to the employee break room, his job was to fill space as an example to others.
Then there’s Franz Gayl, a retired Marine major who serves as a civilian Marine Corps science and technology advisor. In 2006, he served in Iraq, where he witnessed over 700 combat fatalities caused by an 18-month delay in providing armored vehicles that withstand roadside bombs. Gayl’s whistleblowing to Congress led to delivery of the mine-resistant vehicles The unnecessary fatalities ended. However, Marine officials suspended Gayl, took away his key job duties, denied him further training, and placed him under criminal investigation.
These stories, and numerous others, aren’t just tragic for the whistleblowers. They send a powerful signal to all national security employees: Keep your head down. If you see anything wrong, keep it to yourself.
The climate of fear within our national security agencies is the biggest threat to our national security. As noted FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley observed: “Bureaucratic breakdowns and needless disasters keep recurring, in huge part, because government whistleblowers have been silenced.”
We will never be safe until national security whistleblowers can tell the truth. That can’t happen until Congress protects them with rights against retaliation, a reform stalled in the Senate since last year. It is time for our politicians to get serious about protecting those who protect us.