Several weeks ago, I attended a conference in Washington D.C. whose organizing theme was "Ending the Dark Ages, Turning on the Lights." The conference was a gathering of whistleblowers, many of whom indeed saw the lights go out during the secretive, unaccountable reign of George W. Bush, when employees who tried to expose waste, fraud and abuse were routinely marginalized and silenced. Unfortunately, although Barack Obama campaigned as a champion of whistleblower rights, it’s not clear the dark ages have ended quite yet.
Earlier this month, Obama issued a memorandum on scientific integrity that requires all federal agencies to provide whistleblower protections to scientists. It was a welcome step, hailed by Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, as a "major breakthrough." The days when researchers are threatened for speaking out about politically unpalatable subjects (such as, in the Bush era, global warming) do appear to be over. Yet a few days later, Obama issued a signing statement indicating that the Executive Branch would take steps to supervise and control federal employees who communicate with Congress "in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential." It’s the sort of vague language (does ‘properly privileged’ include anything the White House deems sensitive or merely things that are strictly classified?) that the Bush Administration would have appreciated.
The mixed signals are disquieting. Obama could clear up the confusion, and silence his doubters, with one simple step: voicing support for legislation sponsored by Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen that would strengthen protections for all federal employees who are penalized for exposing fraud, waste and abuse, not least by providing them with access to jury trials. As was widely reported, such protections were stripped out of the federal stimulus bill, a fact that should have alarmed the President who will surely foot the blame for any problems that ensue, as he surely knows will happen. "Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account – to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day – because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government," Obama proclaimed in his inaugural address. He still has time to make good on his rhetoric.