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A Whistleblower Explains the Pitfalls of Reporting Government Wrongdoing

FBI whistleblower and Brennan Fellow Michael German advocates for stronger protections so that more whistleblowers “do the right thing.”

October 8, 2019

The whistleblower complaint that prompted the impeachment inquiry against President Trump also brought attention to the risks faced by those who report misconduct. Brennan Center Fellow Michael German has been a leading national advocate for stronger laws that protect whistleblowers from reprisals, require timely investigations of their complaints, and allow them to pursue retaliation claims in court.

German speaks from experience. A former FBI agent who infiltrated white supremacist groups during his 16 years with the bureau, he became a whistleblower himself when he reported mismanagement by his superiors in a terrorism investigation. German, who resigned after suffering reprisals during the tenure of Robert S. Mueller as FBI director, recounts his fight, and that of other FBI whistleblowers, in his new book, Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy.

He answered a few questions about what compels a whistleblower to speak up, the potential fallout for the C.I.A. officer who exposed President Trump’s possible abuse of power in seeking political dirt against a political opponent from a foreign country, and the importance of whistleblowers to our democracy.

What leads a whistleblower to talk?

All federal employees take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not to the protect the agency they work for or the president they serve from public scrutiny. Most whistleblowers I’ve known saw misconduct and felt duty-bound to report it, regardless of how it might affect them personally.

When I saw an illegal act, as a law enforcement officer, I didn’t feel I had any choice but to report it. When FBI managers then began falsifying records to cover up their malfeasance, again, I had no choice but to continue alerting the appropriate oversight officials to what I was witnessing. These FBI managers made me choose between compromising my integrity or ending my career, and I chose the latter.

The New York Times identified the first whistleblower who came forward as a CIA officer at one time detailed to the White House. Do you think this was the right decision?

It is a hard call. Obviously, the whistleblower’s professional identity is a matter of public interest. The excessive secrecy in which intelligence activities and foreign affairs take place undermines democratic controls, which enables the kind of abuses whistleblowers report. So, I am in favor of as much transparency as possible.

On the other hand, whistleblowers have rights that need protection, and some level of anonymity helps protect them. Not publicly naming them may help avoid permanent career ramifications and the abuse and threats that might come from people outside the government. But the truth is that those that would engage in official retaliation likely already had a pretty good idea who was concerned enough about the president’s conduct to report it to the inspector general.

And the reporting avenues required by the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act make it easier for agency managers to identify whistleblowers, so the system is designed to fail when it comes to protecting anonymity. Intelligence employees would be less likely to be identified if they could speak directly to their elected representatives without going to the inspector general first.

Mike German Brennan Center for Justice
Image: Brennan Center for Justice

President Trump responded to the first whistleblower’s complaint with taunts and attacks on his or her credibility. What kind of pressure does this put on a whistleblower?

It is incredibly harmful. There are surely government employees taking President Trump’s public statements as a directive to identify, report, and retaliate against the whistleblower, and clearly people inside and outside the government are already investigating his or her background and leaking details they find damning. The fact that a second whistleblower reported to the inspector general within days indicates that other employees are also feeling the heat, and at least one is seeking protection by following the process outlined in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act.

The president’s language could even be considered an attempt to intimidate witnesses. I’m sure the whistleblowers are quite concerned about their safety, not to mention their future career. The truth is that there are very few protections for intelligence community whistleblowers. And what does exist is just an avenue to seek compensation after the whistleblower is retaliated against, rather than a shield to protect the whistleblower from suffering that retaliation in the first place.

I am sure in this polarized political era the whistleblowers knew that reporting presidential misconduct was going to put a target on their back, but they made the courageous decision to step forward despite the personal consequences. At least in this case, policymakers are taking action to investigate their allegations. Nothing is more frustrating to whistleblowers than to have the responsible officials ignore the information they provided at such great personal and professional cost.

What effect do you think this moment, especially if it leads to impeachment, will have on future whistleblowers during and after the Trump administration?

I think in the short term more whistleblowers will come forward, figuring they aren’t alone in their concerns and hopeful that members of Congress will respond appropriately to investigate their reports of government waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality.

But it’s up to members of Congress to welcome this reporting, to respond to it with thorough investigations, to use their authority to demand protection for these whistleblowers, and, finally, to amend the law to more effectively protect those in the FBI and intelligence agencies who work every day to protect us. These conscientious government servants deserve to have the strongest protections so they know they can do the right thing.

What needs to change about how the government currently protects national security whistleblowers?

The primary reform necessary to protect whistleblowers is giving them access to federal courts to vindicate their rights if they face reprisals for good faith reporting of government wrongdoing. Intelligence community and FBI whistleblowers are most vulnerable for two reasons.

First, these agencies have broad authority to investigate and reinvestigate their backgrounds, providing opportunity to pursue retaliatory allegations and selectively punish minor violations of administrative rules. Second, the agencies have broad authority to revoke the security clearances necessary to employment with little cause and few due process rights. So long as these agencies can be their own adjudicators of retaliation claims in secret, eluding congressional oversight and public accountability, whistleblowers within these agencies will not be safe.

If the agencies could be trusted to act in good faith regarding internal whistleblowers, we wouldn’t need whistleblower protections. 

Please finish this sentence: “Without whistleblowers, …” 

… neither our liberty nor our security can be preserved.