April 14, 2014
While we’ve been disappointed that Senator Chuck Grassley appears to have a bit of a double standard with his staunch support for whistleblowers when it comes to Ed Snowden, it is true that he has fought for real whistleblower protections for quite some time. Lately, he’s been quite concerned that the White House’s “Insider Threat Program” (ITP) is really just a cover to crack down on whistleblowers. As we’ve noted, despite early promises from the Obama administration to support and protect whistleblowers, the administration has led the largest crackdown against whistleblowers, and the ITP suggests that the attack on whistleblowers is a calculated response. The program documentation argues that any leak can be seen as “aiding the enemy” and encourages government employees to snitch on each other if they appear too concerned about government wrong-doing. Despite all his high minded talk of supporting whistleblowers, President Obama has used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers twice as many times as all other Presidents combined. Also, he has never — not once — praised someone for blowing the whistle in the federal government.
Given all of that, Senator Grassley expressed some concern about this Insider Threat Program and how it distinguished whistleblowers from actual threats. He asked the FBI for copies of its training manual on the program, which it refused to give him. Instead, it said it could better answer any questions at a hearing. However, as Grassley explains, when questioned about this just 10 minutes into the hearing, the FBI abruptly got up and left:
Meanwhile, the FBI fiercely resists any efforts at Congressional oversight, especially on whistleblower matters. For example, four months ago I sent a letter to the FBI requesting its training materials on the Insider Threat Program. This program was announced by the Obama Administration in October 2011. It was intended to train federal employees to watch out for insider threats among their colleagues. Public news reports indicated that this program might not do enough to distinguish between true insider threats and legitimate whistleblowers. I relayed these concerns in my letter. I also asked for copies of the training materials. I said I wanted to examine whether they adequately distinguished between insider threats and whistleblowers.
In response, an FBI legislative affairs official told my staff that a briefing might be the best way to answer my questions. It was scheduled for last week. Staff for both Chairman Leahy and I attended, and the FBI brought the head of their Insider Threat Program. Yet the FBI didn’t bring the Insider Threat training materials as we had requested. However, the head of the Insider Threat Program told the staff that there was no need to worry about whistleblower communications. He said whistleblowers had to register in order to be protected, and the Insider Threat Program would know to just avoid those people.
Now I have never heard of whistleblowers being required to “register” in order to be protected. The idea of such a requirement should be pretty alarming to all Americans. Sometimes confidentiality is the best protection a whistleblower has. Unfortunately, neither my staff nor Chairman Leahy’s staff was able to learn more, because only about ten minutes into the briefing, the FBI abruptly walked out. FBI officials simply refused to discuss any whistleblower implications in its Insider Threat Program and left the room. These are clearly not the actions of an agency that is genuinely open to whistleblowers or whistleblower protection.
And yes, it’s equally troubling that the FBI insists that as long as someone “registers” as a whistleblower, the FBI will suddenly, magically agree to stop investigating them as a “threat.” We already know that’s almost certainly bullshit. The stories of Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou are both clear examples of whistleblowers, who then had the DOJ search through basically everything they’d ever done to try to concoct some sort of Espionage Act case against them. In both cases, the eventual charges were totally ridiculous and unrelated to the whistleblowing they had done, but clearly the only reason they had been investigated was because of their status as whistleblowers. Drake was charged with having a classified document, which was just a meeting agenda and was both improperly classified and then declassified soon after. Kiriakou was charged with revealing the name of a CIA operative to a reporter, where the person in question was already widely known to journalists as working for the CIA.
Meanwhile, while Grassley still hasn’t come out in support of Snowden as a whistleblower, he does seem reasonably concerned that James Clapper’s plans to stop the next Snowden will have severe consequences for whistleblowers:
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper seems to have talked about such procedures when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 11, 2014. In his testimony, he said:
We are going to proliferate deployment of auditing and monitoring capabilities to enhance our insider threat detection. We’re going to need to change our security clearance process to a system of continuous evaluation. . . . What we need is . . . a system of continuous evaluation, where . . . we have a way of monitoring their behavior, both their electronic behavior on the job as well as off the job, to see if there is a potential clearance issue. . . .
Director Clapper’s testimony gives me major pause. It sounds as though this type of monitoring would likely capture the activity of whistleblowers communicating with Congress.
As Marcy Wheeler notes in her post (linked above, which called my attention to all this), by declaring war on whistleblowers, the administration is almost guaranteeing that many fewer will use “official channels” to blow the whistle. That just makes them targets with the likelihood of getting no results. Instead, all this does is incentivize people to go the Chelsea Manning/Ed Snowden route of going directly to journalists to make sure the stories get out.