Some exposed lapses in national security superiors would not correct. Others reported corruption and fraud. Others said they had simply done their job, refusing to go along with political pressure from their bosses to do the expedient thing, instead of the right thing.
About two dozen federal whistleblowers gathered on Capitol Hill this week to ask lawmakers to boost protections for federal workers who report wrongdoing. Many had lost their jobs or allege they suffered other reprisals during the Bush era, and said they hoped the new Obama administration – and a Democratic Congress – would treat them, and future whistleblowers, better.
Spencer Pickard, a federal air marshal who in 2006 helped warn the public of dangerous flaws in aviation security procedures, told lawmakers' aides he had no choice but to resign after going public with his concerns. His marriage broke up, and he has not been able to find work. Pickard and his two children now live with his parents in Texas.
Meanwhile, reviews by the House Judiciary Committee, the Government Accountability Office and others have confirmed Pickard's worries were real. His former boss left office under a cloud, and the procedures Pickard criticized have reportedly been fixed.
The Department of Homeland Security fired MacLean after he reported security problems caused by budget shortfalls; the agency said he had improperly disclosed sensitive information. MacLean has been fighting for three years to win his job back, to no avail.
Over three days, the whistleblowers met with some of the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV); the chairmen and ranking members of the Judiciary Committees, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee and others.
In addition to boosting legal protections for government workers who report waste, fraud, abuse or security problems, Pickard and MacLean were pressing for Congress and the White House to go one further: set up a system to reinstate whistleblowers who were improperly fired, pushed out or demoted.
"Whistleblowers don't go looking up the law before they decide to come forward," MacLean explained. "But they will look at what happened to Spencer, and what happened to me."
Senate aides meeting the whistleblowers tended to be genial but noncommittal, although some promised to pursue holding meetings or hearings on the matter. Other committees must be conferred with, one explained. The White House needs to weigh in, others noted. They also said Congress needs to wait until the new administration has appointees in place, and there should be hearings before any legislation is introduced.
Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, who helped organize the effort, declared himself "encouraged" by the meetings. "What we're waiting for now is the president to upgrade his campaign pledges to administration policy," he said.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.