Whistleblowers -- those who go public with allegations of waste, fraud
and abuse -- continue to have a tough time, despite a law protecting them and
repeated assurances from the White House, many government agencies and Congress
that they maintain a policy of zero tolerance for retaliation.
The latest victim of apparent retaliation is Bunnatine H. "Bunny"
Greenhouse, the senior contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers,
who objected -- first, internally, then publicly -- to a multi-billion dollar,
no-bid contract with the Halliburton company for work in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, commander of the Army Corps, told Greenhouse she was
being removed from the senior executive service, the top rank of civilian government
employees, because of poor performance reviews.
But Greenhouse's attorney, Michael D. Kohn, has appealed the decision in a
letter to Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying the performance review
cited by Strock to justify his action "was conducted by the very subjects"
of Greenhouse's allegations.
Greenhouse went public with her concerns over the volume of Iraq-related work
given to Halliburton by the Corps without competition. Previously, her complaints
within the agency having been ignored, she started giving interviews to national
news media, and testified before a Democrat-sponsored Capitol Hill event on
contracting in Iraq.
"I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts
awarded to (Halliburton subsidiary) KBR represents the most blatant and improper
abuse I have witnessed" in 20 years working on government contracts, Greenhouse
said at the Democratic forum.
Greenhouse, the Army Corps' top procurement official since 1997, has developed
a reputation among those in both government and industry as being a stickler
for the rules.
That has led her critics to characterise her as a rule-bound bureaucrat. But
supporters see her as a defender of the public trust.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, KBR had been hired to design
a program to extinguish the oil fires the Pentagon believed retreating Iraqi
troops would set when the invasion took place.
The government's request for proposals to implement the KBR plan stipulated
that contractors had to have knowledge of KBR's plan. Consequently, KBR was
the only bidder deemed eligible. The company was then hired to implement the
program in a five-year, no-bid contract.
Government contacting rules generally forbid contractors hired to prepare plans
and budget estimates from bidding for the work that grows out of these plans.
Government contractors who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity said "contracts
officers who insist on dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't' can drive you
crazy and delay your start-date".
But all agreed that contracting regulations "are there for a purpose --
to protect the taxpayers' money. In the end, you just accept delays as a cost
of doing business."
Greenhouse is only the latest in a lengthening string of whistleblowers whose
cases have been rejected by the government.
Most prominent is Sibel Edmonds, who is waiting for the Supreme Court to review
her charges that the behaviour of some of her fellow employees at the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compromised national security.
Lower courts turned down her case when the FBI claimed the "state secrets"
privilege, contending that disclosure of Edmonds' evidence would reveal classified
Edmonds, a contract linguist for the bureau, was the subject of an investigation
by the Department of Justice inspector general, who found that her charges were
the major reason for her dismissal.
She organised and now leads the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition,
which includes more than 50 former employees of national security agencies.
The group has called on congress to permit whistleblowers to sue government
retaliators in their personal and official capacities and to bring suit against
agencies for failure to rectify misdeeds by employees or provide sufficient
safeguards against whistleblower retaliation.
The government is increasingly using the "state secrets" privilege
to block whistleblowers' suits. The State Secrets Privilege gives the federal
government the ability to dismiss legal cases it claims would threaten foreign
policy, military intelligence or national security.
It was used in 2002 in the case of Notra Trulock, who launched a defamation
suit against Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American computer scientist charged with
stealing nuclear secrets for China from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in
New Mexico. Pres. George W. Bush said national security would be compromised
if Trulock were allowed to seek damages from Lee.
Lee -- who had been imprisoned for 278 days in solitary confinement -- eventually
pled guilty to improper handling of classified data and was cleared of all charges
relating to espionage.
The government again invoked the privilege when Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen,
sought to sue then Attorney-General John Ashcroft for his role in taking Arar
from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Syria against his will.
He says he was first held incommunicado by U.S. immigration authorities, and
eventually "rendered" to Syria, where he was imprisoned for close
to a year and claims he was tortured. He was released without charges.
Former Deputy Attorney-General James B. Comey said in legal papers filed at
the time that "Litigating [the] plaintiff's complaint would necessitate
disclosure of classified information." The Arar case is currently being
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Barbara Olshansky, the assistant legal director of the Centre for Constitutional
Rights, which is representing Arar, told IPS, that government lawyers "think
they can do anything they want in the name of the global war on terrorism."
Again, in August 2005, a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of a
racial discrimination lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
based on the state secrets privilege.
Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA operations officer, claimed he was told he was "too
big and black" to receive certain CIA assignments, and that CIA management
placed expectations on him "far above those required of non-African-American
Operations Officers." He also contended he was retaliated against for using
the CIA's internal equal employment opportunity process.
The court ruled that Sterling cold not prove employment discrimination without
exposing classified details of his covert employment.