Whistleblowers Need Protection, Not Prosecution

OpenTheGovernment.org welcomes the recent news that as a result of a plea bargain Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA) who blew the whistle through proper government channels on massive fraud, waste and abuse within the NSA, may not have to spend any time in jail. However, Mr. Drake’s aggressive prosecution by the Bush and Obama Administrations remains a stark reminder of the extreme dangers to patriotic public employees created by a "zero tolerance" policy towards "leakers."

We understand Mr. Drake’s prosecution was part of a coordinated effort by the intelligence agencies to specifically target a "leaker" from each agency in order to send a message to other employees. Mr. Drake’s situation highlights issues with the policy in conception and in practice.

First, the policy implies that leaks, by their very nature, are bad. Some leaks do undoubtedly hurt national security, but some leaks bring to light instances where the government is engaging in practices that are wasteful, or illegal. The public has a right to know what its government is doing, and especially has the right to know when its government is doing something wrong. The distinction between leakers who put national interests at risk and whistleblowers is important; in fact, as described by our colleague Danielle Brian at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), during a recent meeting in the Oval Office with transparency advocates President Obama drew such a distinction himself. A "zero tolerance" policy leaves little room for such distinctions, though, and "sends a message" to all employees to keep quiet–even if they see waste, fraud and abuse.

Second, the government has most certainly not drawn that distinction in practice. Civil servants like Mr. Drake and Thomas Tamm, a former DOJ lawyer who revealed the existence of the US government’s illegal wiretapping program, are exactly the kind of public employees who should be honored and protected, not prosecuted. Mr. Drake and Mr. Tamm spoke up when they saw the government abusing its authority. Their brave actions undoubtedly strengthened our democracy.

Learn more about recent prosecutions of whistleblowers by exploring our interactive slideshow below

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