On September 22, five whistleblower advocacy groups co-signed a letter to a group of senators voicing concerns about a section of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022. The groups worry that language in Section 321 of the Act would discourage intelligence whistleblowers from speaking out and obfuscate where their disclosures are protected.
The letter is co-signed by leaders from the National Whistleblower Center, Empower Oversight Whistleblowers & Research, Protect the FBI, the Project on Government Oversight, and the Government Accountability Project. The groups’ letter is addressed to Chairman and Ranking Member of the Select Committee on Intelligence Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). It is also addressed to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, and Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
“We write to you to express our concerns that Section 321 of the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2022 (S. 2610) as currently drafted may perpetuate ambiguity in the law and unintentionally roll back the hard-won protections for FBI whistleblowers “to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof,” the letter begins.
The groups highlight that the current law “does not require FBI employees to first make their disclosures to any specific inspector general or particular committee for their rights to be protected.” This approach “should be the model for protecting all whistleblower disclosures to Congress,” the letter states.
“Statutory limits that make whistleblower rights contingent on reporting only to a narrow subset of duly elected representatives are a bad idea,” the groups write. They argue that limits in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 “would likely result in whistleblowers being discouraged from reporting at all, because they are unsure of the correct process and fear retaliation, or they distrust the specified reporting process, person, or body.” The groups state that the Act’s language “could be read to impose a new limit on the committees to which an FBI employee could make protected disclosures or wrongdoing,” which has the potential to dissuade individuals from blowing the whistle.
“Information from whistleblowers can be vital to Members’ constitutional functions, and it would be a mistake for Congress to place statutory limits on the flow of information necessary for its own members to fulfill their constitutional duty,” the letter reads. The groups include insight from Dan Meyer, a member of Empower Oversight’s Whistleblower Advisory Board and former Director of Civilian Reprisal Investigations for the Department of Defense. Meyers states that in his experience, “In the best of circumstances, Congressional staff would redirect the allegations back to an inspector general…Other Committees, not so good. They struggled with this mission. The disclosures would go up, but oversight would not be forthcoming.” Meyers’ comments point to the downside of limiting protected disclosures to specific committees.
The advocacy groups urge the senators “to amend the provision to ensure it is consistent with the Intelligence Committee’s intent to improve protections for intelligence community whistleblowers.” The letter states that it is “essential” for whistleblowers to “have multiple options to safely and legally make disclosures to multiple channels in Congress.”
“Whistleblowers of all stripes must have robust disclosure options to safely divulge information to Congress, as our Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders in whistleblower protection have fought for,” said Siri Nelson, Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center in a press release. “Narrowing the channels for disclosure can only harm whistleblowers taking on immense responsibility to report and face waste, fraud and abuse. Committee leaders must work together to amend Section 321 in a manner consistent with Congressional design and leading whistleblower protections.”