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Dissenters’ Digest for February 2013

1:58 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Dissenters’ Digest takes a look at last month’s top stories covering whistleblowers, watchdogs, and government accountability.

Clear Conscience: U.S. Army whistleblower Bradley Manning pled guilty to 10 of 22 charges against him, offering a 35-page testimonial explaining why he released hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and other evidence of government misconduct to Wikileaks in January 2010.

Guilty of Purging Evidence: Former Special Counsel Scott Bloch pled guilty to erasing 3 government computers that may have contained whistleblower disclosures, retaliation complaints, and other sensitive memos. The charge may involve up to six months in jail.

30 Months in Prison: Ex-CIA spy John Kiriakou reported to prison to begin a 30-month sentence for disclosing the identity of an undercover CIA agent. Kiriakou came to prominence in 2007 for publicly reporting about the CIA’s torture program.

Below the Fold:

Are Good Government Groups Quick to Praise the New Special Counsel?

10:42 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Is it too soon to say things like:

With this remarkable record and the extraordinary leadership of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, we can expect that as disclosures continue to skyrocket and the caseload grows, [the Office of Special Counsel] will handle their investigations and litigation with utmost efficiency and integrity.

As the Project on Government Oversight did just this past week, or:

The track record under the helm of Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, who assumed office in 2011, is equally as unprecedented as its increased caseload and having increased productivity by over 50% in the past few years[.]

As the Government Accountability Project did a few days ago?

Consider that there are a few grumbles that have arisen so far concerning OSC’s performance:

Let me be clear: OSC deserves credit for the evident turnaround since the Scott Bloch era. Persistent underfunding continues, in part because the groups mentioned above have not pushed for it before. But this post is not so much about OSC’s performance today, as it is about grounding laudatory statements (and the propensity to make them) with facts. The groups above have a history of jumping to award OSC leadership when, frankly, it did not deserve it. The pattern may be repeating itself here. Facts matter, and the jury is still out.

No Deterrence, No Transparency?

7:57 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

Could a contributing factor to the 28 percent rise in FOIA litigation during President Barack Obama’s first term in office be that a little-known provision in the Freedom of Information Act has not been utilized?

That provision, found at 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(F), calls for three actors to hold FOIA abusers accountable:

the courts, which may issue a finding that the circumstances surrounding an improper withholding “raise questions whether agency personnel acted arbitrarily or capriciously with respect to the withholding”;

the Special Counsel, which “shall promptly initiate a proceeding to determine whether disciplinary action is warranted against the officer or employee who was primarily responsible for the withholding”; and

the Attorney General, which has the responsibility of notifying the Special Counsel each time a court makes the determination above.

The Attorney General also has the responsibility of submitting an annual report to Congress on the number of times this has happened in the past year (this is a new provision, added by the OPEN Government Act of 2007).

I recently made a FOIA request to the Justice Department for these reports. Here is its response:

Please be advised that the Department of Justice annually submits to Congress a FOIA Litigation and Compliance Report, in compliance with 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F)(ii)(II). These reports are made available online at http://www.justice.gov/oip/reports.html#s3. For your information, once the calendar year 2012 report is submitted to Congress, it will be posted on this same website. Additionally, please note that information regarding notifications from the Attorney General to the Office of Special Counsel is provided on the final page of the report.

If you follow that link, and track the reports for 2008-2011, here’s what you will find:

2008: “During 2008, the United States courts made no written findings pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F)(i). Accordingly, no notification of the Special Counsel was necessary.”

2009: “During 2009, the United States courts made no written findings pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F)(i). Accordingly, no notification to the Special Counsel was necessary.”

2010: “During 2010, the United States courts made no written findings pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F)(i). Accordingly, no notification of the Special Counsel was necessary.”

2011: “During 2011, the United States courts made no written findings pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(4)(F)(i). Accordingly, no notification to the Special Counsel was necessary.”

So there you have it. No judicial findings since the OPEN Government Act was passed. No Special Counsel investigations. No discipline. And no deterrence. Is it any wonder we’re witnessing a 28% increase in FOIA lawsuits?

Will Congress Step Up With an Amicus at MSPB or Federal Circuit to Ensure Bush/Obama Era Whistleblowers Get Justice?

11:15 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

In early June, Congress, as channeled by lobbyist Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, was keen on making sure the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act would get a “clean” savings provision that applied it retroactively, to whistleblowers who were victimized during the last few years.

By the end of August, Devine seemed to be avoiding the issue. After Labor Day, all bets were off in Congress because of “general nervousness,” even though there was “no real opposition” to retroactivity.

The end product didn’t contain the clean savings provision whistleblowers wanted, and now it’s an issue for the courts to resolve. The legal landscape isn’t promising, though presumably the Office of Special Counsel will give it its best shot.

One thing that Congress could do to get past its nervousness this time is understand that real people’s lives are affected. Here’s a running list. Congress should submit an amicus expressing unanimous approval of its newly-minted law applying retroactively. And GAP should organize it.

Justice Sought in Scott Bloch’s Prosecution

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

In the 1990′s, Douglas Kinan was an Equal Employment Specialist with the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency, out of Boston. While there, he blew the whistle on multi-million dollar pricepromotion fixing and rampant racial discrimination. He also refused to go along with the frame-up of an innocent employee. Even after leaving DoD, he reached out to every federal agency that could investigate, including the Office of Special Counsel, to no avail. Through these efforts, he came to know former Special Counsel Scott Bloch during Bloch’s lawless heyday.

Kinan retired in August 2012 after a 12 year run with the Massachusetts trial court system.

This is his letter [pdf] to U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who is overseeing Bloch’s latest criminal prosecution. In it, Kinan writes:

Mr. Bloch’s conduct deserves to have a constant light on it until there has been a just resolve befitting his ‘alleged’ criminal activity, of which he pleaded guilty and later was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. If it were a poor person, without connections, he/she would have gone straight to jail.

Accordingly, Mr. Bloch’s conduct, actions and behavior demand just consequences. Mr. Bloch’s conduct was incredibly destructive. He shattered dreams, destroyed lives and families and, using his position of public trust, turned hope into heartache. He didn’t care who he hurt. Your Honor now has the opportunity and privilege to apply the rule of law to make things right.

Fact Check: GAP Legal Filing Falsely Claims Intelligence Workers Lack External Avenues to Blow the Whistle

7:54 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

In a friend-of-the-court filing dated Dec. 17, the Government Accountability Project argued that a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 should be declared unconstitutionally vague as it might chill whistleblowers’ speech. In describing the legal landscape affecting whistleblowers’ rights, however, GAP painted an unduly narrow picture of the avenues currently available.

On page 11, counsel for GAP described the protections in the Whistleblower Protection Act as follows:

The primary legislation affecting federal whistleblowers, the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (“WPA”), provides certain federal employees who report evidence of violations of law, rule or regulation including gross mismanagement, waste of funds, or substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety with some protection, including judicial review.  See 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b)(8).

It noted that “employees in the intelligence community are excluded from the WPA’s protections.”

The brief then continued to state that

[W]histleblowers in the intelligence community . . . are limited to internal administrative avenues. The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 (“ICWPA”) is toothless and creates bureaucratic procedures that makes blowing the whistle an exercise in futility. [Emphasis added.]

This particular claim is false. By law, all executive branch employees have the right to make disclosures of classified (or unclassified) information externally–to the Office of Special Counsel. See 5 U.S.C. § 1213(a)(2). The exemption of intelligence workers from protections against reprisal, found in 5 U.S.C. § 2302(a)(2)(C)(ii), does not affect their right to make disclosures to the Office of Special Counsel.

As such, the ICWPA is not the only avenue to blow the whistle in the intelligence community. Though the WPA does not provide protections against reprisal to intelligence community employees, it does guarantee confidentiality, and an unfiltered channel to the National Security Advisor and relevant intelligence committees in Congress for intelligence-related disclosures. See 5 U.S.C. §§ 1213(h), (j).

Moreover, OSC recently accepted a disclosure from a former FBI employee (FBI is one of the agencies listed in 5 U.S.C. § 2302(a)(2)(C)(ii)), further demonstrating that disclosures by intelligence community employees may be made outside the ICWPA.

Update: In a YouTube video posted Dec. 18, OSC official Bruce Fong (at the 3:31 mark) said that

If your disclosure involves information that you believe might be prohibited from public disclosure, be very careful. You must use a protected channel in order to benefit from the protections of the whistleblower laws. So, if you have information in your disclosure that includes classified information, for example, make sure you use one of the protected channels. The office of inspector general is always a protected channel. So is the Office of Special Counsel. [Emphasis added.]

The Office of Special Counsel Needs an Inspector General

7:07 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

The Office of Special Counsel does not have an inspector general. In fact, it was only in 2008 (30 years after its founding) that OSC was given some measure of oversight, with an amendment to the IG Act of 1978 that allows complaints against the Special Counsel and Deputy Special Counsel to be brought before the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

MSPB Watch has attempted to launch citizen oversight of OSC via a number of various FOIA requests. The earliest one, still pending, was made more than a year ago, on Dec. 15, 2011. After a number of rolling completion dates, this request is now scheduled for completion for the end of January 2013. It bears repeating that the Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to provide responsive documents within twenty days. An ambitious schedule, to be sure, but waiting a year or more for documents is problematic.

It’s even more problematic when one considers that OSC is tasked with investigating and prosecuting arbitrary and capricious withholding of FOIA documents. While no implication regarding motive is intended in the present case, OSC cannot credibly work to ensure transparency within other agencies if its own transparency and adherence to the FOIA are found lacking.

The counterargument, of course, is lack of resources, prioritization, caseloads, etc. But the case needs to be made that more resources are needed. Programs and policies need to be audited and evaluated, and recommendations need to be put into reports that are then taken into serious consideration by Congress. The basic fact is that citizen oversight, limited as it is, does not work if access to information is restricted by prolonged delays.

Update: An OSC official told MSPB Watch Dec. 20 that

OSC does not have an IG. At a time of diminished resources and a significant increase in work in all program areas, OSC is not able to create an IG position. That being said, OSC reviews program effectiveness and efficiency on an ongoing basis and issues various reports, including the recently issued Performance and Accountability report, which is posted at http://osc.gov/RR_PerformanceAndAccountabilityReports.htm. In the future, OSC might contract with other IGs to perform certain services.

OSC: Commerce Dep’t Inspector General Gagged Employees From Blowing Whistle

11:17 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, the Office of Special Counsel is alleging that top officials in the Commerce Department Office of Inspector General threatened subordinate employees with negative performance reviews if they didn’t sign non-disclosure agreements that barred them from exercising their rights to blow the whistle and petition Congress.

The Special Counsel petitioned the Merit Systems Protection Board to stay enforcement of the non-disclosure agreements, which she argued are an “any other significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” in retaliation for the employees’ potential for blowing the whistle – a/k/a their “perceived whistleblower” status.

The Special Counsel said in a press release Nov. 30 that “[b]ecause the act of disclosing the gag provision may itself be prohibited by the harsh terms of the agreements, OSC is protecting the employees’ identities.”

MSPB Member Mark A. Robbins, in a single-member decision, Nov. 29 granted the stay request for 45 days, adding that

For purposes of this nonprecedential single-member decision in this ex parte proceeding, I accept OSC’s assertion that the Former Employees’ inability to report perceived wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities as a result of signing the nondisclosure agreement may constitute a “significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” under 5 U.S.C. § 2302(a)(2)(A)(xi).“

Other examples of “any other significant change in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions” may be found here.

From OSC’s press shop:

OSC Granted Stay in Challenge to Commerce Department Gag Clauses

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Ann O’Hanlon, (202) 254-3631; aohanlon@osc.gov

WASHINGTON, D.C./November 30, 2012 –

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) yesterday granted a stay requested by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) prohibiting enforcement of unlawful gag clauses in settlement agreements between the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and four former employees of the OIG, each of whom was coerced into signing an agreement under threat of harm to their career prospects and future employment. The order is available here.

The agreements prohibit employees from voluntarily communicating with OSC or Congress. The employees were told that manufactured negative performance appraisals would be shared with prospective employers if the employees did not sign the nondisclosure agreements.

The MSPB’s action means that the personnel actions taken or threatened to be taken by OIG senior management must cease for 45 days, giving OSC further time to investigate the allegations. These personnel actions include the threatened communication with prospective employers and the imposition of significant changes in the employees’ working conditions.

The order concludes that an agreement restricting employees’ ability to report wrongdoing is a change in working conditions and is therefore a personnel action under the Whistleblower Protection Act.

In addition, the order applies the Lloyd-LaFollette Act, a 1912 law codifying the rights of federal employees to blow the whistle to Congress.

Because the act of disclosing the gag provision may itself be prohibited by the harsh terms of the agreements, OSC is protecting the employees’ identities.

“OSC is committed to ensuring that agencies do not interfere with whistleblowing to Congress,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “We are pleased that the MSPB has granted the stay so that OSC can further investigate this matter.”

Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou: Martyrs for rule of law or avoidable casualties of a broken system?

8:40 pm in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

What do Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, and their representative in GAP, Jesselyn Radack, have in common?

None went to the Office of Special Counsel when they blew the whistle.

Does it matter? Would it have mattered?

If you were faced with a crisis of conscience at work – if your employer was torching the Constitution, what would you do? Exhaust all reasonable channels before going public? Rush to the nearest newspaper outlet? I’m all for the higher moral principle argument: breaking an unjust law to save the rule of law, especially when the arsonists suffer no consequences.

But there’s still an open question that remains. Why didn’t they go to the only place that is external to their agencies and can provide them with confidentiality and forward their disclosures directly to Congress and the National Security Advisor?

Whether OSC would have done so is a different matter: that’s the “Scott Bloch argument.”

But Bush and company started shredding the Constitution when Clinton-appointee Elaine Kaplan was still the Special Counsel.

Did they know OSC could have accepted their disclosures? Did they even know of OSC?

This is more than who was Special Counsel at the time. It’s about the role of OSC within the national security scheme and its treatment by the establishment (including the NGOs). If it’s ignored for decades and gets treated like the ugly stepchild of the federal bureaucracy that nobody talks about, it can’t help the country when a rogue element in the White House turns its sights on the Constitution.

Seen from this perspective, it’s no wonder Drake and Kiriakou never went to OSC, and it’s no wonder they trashed their careers.

But you won’t hear this argument from Radack, who did exactly what they did, and suffered for it, albeit without the threat of jail time.

Nor can she talk about it without making things uncomfortable for her colleagues, who helped stand up OSC and are responsible, in the veal pen sense, for what OSC is and is not.

White House issues policy directive [promises?] national security employees whistleblower protections

5:36 am in Uncategorized by MSPB Watch

gate

(photo: Scott Ableman / flickr)

Update: apparently this directive doesn’t “grant” protections so much as promises them, or something. See the comments below.

Here is a copy of the directive [PDF], obtained from federalnewsradio.com. Here is some background about what it entails:

“Protected disclosure” is defined in this document as follows (emphasis added):

(5) The term “Protected Disclosure” means:

(a) a disclosure of information by the employee to a supervisor in the employee’s direct chain of command up to and including the head of the employing agency, to the Inspector General of the employing agency or Intelligence Community Element, to the Director of National Intelligence, to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, or to an employee designated by any of the above officials for the purpose of receiving such disclosures, that the employee reasonably believes evidences (i) a violation of any law, rule, or regulation; or (ii) gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety;

(b) any communication described by and that complies with subsection (a)(1), (d), or (h) of section 8H of the Inspector General Act of 1978 (5 U.S.C. App.); subsection (d)(5)(A) of section 17 of the Central Intelligence Agency Act of 1949 (50 U.S.C. 403q); or subsection (k)(5)(A), (D), or (G), of section l03H of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 403-3h);

(c) the exercise of any appeal, complaint, or grievance with regard to the violation of Section A or B of this directive;

(d) lawfully participating in an investigation or proceeding regarding a violation of Section A or B of this directive; or

(e) cooperating with or disclosing information to an Inspector General, in accordance with applicable provisions of law in connection with an audit, inspection, or investigation conducted by the Inspector General,

if the actions described under subparagraphs (c) through (e) do not result in the employee disclosing classified information or other information contrary to law.

This raises an interesting question: why doesn’t this definition include the Office of Special Counsel as an authorized recipient of (presumably classified) information?

After all, OSC is authorized by law to receive classified disclosures. So where does it fit in with this new scheme? In fact, OSC appears only once, in a discussion regarding assessing the efficacy of provisions deterring retaliation, on page 5. Why not educate employees about the OSC option? The document calls on national security officials to provide guidance for individual officers or employees regarding what disclosures are protected (also on page 5).

For more on this issue, see the following: