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Intelligence officials leak surprise decision in whistleblower case

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[Cross=posted at Whistleblowing Today]

The Project on Government Oversight reports that a three-person panel authorized by Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19 concluded last May that the National Security Agency’s inspector general retaliated against a whistleblower. Based on that information, Director Michael Rogers sent IG George Ellard a termination notice. The IG, who is on administrative leave while he appeals the decision, said in 2014, “Snowden could have come to me. We have surprising success in resolving the complaints that are brought to us.”

Reportedly, this is the first whistleblower case in the intelligence community to receive a high-level review since PPD-19 was issued in 2012.  The identity of the whistleblower has not been made public.

Information about the case, described by POGO as “closely held but unclassified,” was leaked to POGO by “sources who spoke on condition of anonymity” and has been micromanaged by agency officials.

In a statement to Government Executive, provided on condition of anonymity and reviewed by NSA and the intelligence community IG, the NSA whistleblower said, “I am proud that my case was the first to move through the President’s IC whistleblowing initiative of 2012. … The agency is currently engaged with me on the remedial portion of corrective action, the action needed to make me whole. To me, the PPD-19 process and the assistance of the Intelligence Community Inspector General’s Office was critical to my success personally and professionally.” — Government Executive

POGO also reached out to the NSA employee and victim of Ellard’s retaliation, posing a detailed series of questions about what happened through an official intermediary. POGO has been told that the whistleblower composed answers to at least some of those queries, and was seeking NSA approval before releasing them. So far, there is no sign that such approval has been granted. — POGO

The revelation of events that occurred in May arrived in the last month of Obama’s administration—a time when presidents are prone to gussy up their legacies with last-minute embellishments. But, a smear of lipstick cannot hide the ugliness of Obama’s Espionage Act indictments of national security whistleblowers who include   Thomas Drake, Stephen Kim, Shami Leibowitz, John Kiriakou, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling. Drake, Kiriakou and Sterling also reported wrongdoing through authorized channels but were not protected from zealous searches for small or inadvertent errors to severely punish.

Might the NSA case reflect a change of heart toward whistleblowers?  Unfortunately, we don’t have much information on how other whistleblower cases were resolved. But where light shines more brightly, we see continued persecution of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Sterling. When Sterling’s attorneys appealed his conviction based on innuendo and circumstantial evidence, the Justice Department remained steadfastly vindictive. Meanwhile, Sterling’s wife says prison officials are denying him medical care for a life-threatening condition. President Obama, who could  remedy the situation, has done nothing.

Continuing abuses indicate that federal officials, including the president, still cling to a view of whistleblowing that is misguided and purposefully cruel. That view contrasts sharply with a benign attitude toward leaks that put the administration in a good light. Hostility toward whistleblowers is so deeply embedded in government, and immunization of senior officials from accountability is so widespread, that it’s hard to imagine punishment of a senior retaliating official being anything but a temporary setback. Consider the example of General Petraeus, a high-level leaker who fell from grace into a comfortable safety net and quickly emerged as a candidate for Secretary of State.

Officials continue to smear whistleblowers with allegations unsupported by credible evidence. This week, the House of Representatives released a report in which US intelligence officials allege that Edward Snowden is “in contact” with Russian intelligence. Snowden’s attorney responded that the report “combines demonstrable falsehoods with deceptive inferences to paint an entirely fictional portrait of an American whistleblower.”

Punishment of a retaliating official is extremely rare. For that reason alone, it is cause for celebration even when we suspect a farce.  If even one NSA whistleblower feels vindicated, hallelujah! But, while senior officials publicly vilify whistleblowers and privately discipline their abusers, we know in our hearts the system is still broken.