August 4, 2009 -- Will Barack Obama, a champion of whistleblower protection when he was a state senator, act as strongly to protect them when they blow the whistle on his administration?
Whistleblowers tell ABC News they are encouraged by recent signs from the White House about possible efforts to protect them from retaliation. But, they say, they are still wary after years of brutal confrontations that left many of them jobless, financially drained and emotionally spent.
Late last week, President Obama appointed two individuals to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative panel that hears employment appeals from federal employees, including cases that fall under the recently-passed Whistleblowers Protection Enhancement Act of 2009.
The picks - Susan Grundmann, general counsel for the National Federation of Federal Employees, and Anne Wagner, general counsel for the Personal Appeals Board of the U.S. Government Accountability Office – were hailed by whistleblowers and watchdog groups as a first step in overhauling federal whistleblower protection laws.
"Unlike Bush administration appointees who compiled a 1-44 track record against whistleblowers, these leaders are seasoned veterans with a proven track record of commitment to the merit system throughout their careers," said Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit public interest group Government Accountability Project.
Devine called the appointments "a weathervane that the Obama Administration is serious about its good government rhetoric."
As an Illinois senator, Obama was responsible for passing legislation to protect government employees who come forward and risk their jobs to expose waste, corruption and national security lapses. And during his 2008 election campaign, Obama promised to protect whistleblowers, saying their "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled."
Last week, a Senate committee unanimously approved a bill to expand protections for federal workers, which would allow them to bring claims of retaliation for whistle-blowing to a federal court before a jury. Under the current system, federal whistleblowers sometimes wait years to have their cases heard by an appointed board.
Case of Robert MacLean
An even more significant test for clues to the new administrations intention's will be the handling this week of an appeal in the case of Robert MacLean, who is appealing his dismissal from the Federal Air Marshal Service. MacLean's attorneys plan to file a motion to dismiss "without prejudice" a case against MacLean, who was fired in 2006 for coming forward with TSA plans to eliminate air marshal protection on coast-to-coast flights to save money, in the hopes this administration will break the ranks and declare the firing unlawful.
Robert Bray, director of the Federal Air Marshal Service, recently told the Washington Post that MacLean is "still twisting in the wind," which he characterized as "very unfair."
These are some of the headline-making men and women who put their federal jobs on the line, some of whose cases may be impacted by strengthened whistleblower protection laws:
Former federal air marshal Robert MacLean says he was fired in 2006 for going public with the agency's plans to eliminate air marshal protection on coast-to-coast flights to save money. MacLean has been waiting more than three years for a hearing before the MSPB. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2009 stipulates that cases like MacLean's must be heard within 270 days.
Former federal air marshal Spencer Pickard says he was forced to resign from his job as a federal air marshal after he helped warn the public in 2006 of dangerous flaws in aviation security procedures. "I'm here because the people need to know if the terrorists do their job right and prepare like they did before 9/11, they will figure out a way to win because we are not undercover," Pickard said in a 2006 ABC News 20/20 broadcast. ABC spoke to dozens of current and former air marshals as part of a three-month investigation which found they all had to stay in the same hotels, abide by a dress code banning jeans and sneakers and follow boarding procedures forcing them to identify themselves while passengers look on. The Federal Air Marshal Service subsequently dropped the dress code and hotel requirements.
Russell Tice, a former National Security Agency intelligence analyst, came forward to reveal details about the NSA's controversial warrantless surveillance program. Tice told ABC News that he saw unlawful and unconstitutional acts done at the NSA while working there, which he called "black world programs and operations." After the program was reported by the New York Times, the U.S. government launched an investigation to identify who released the information to the media. In 2005, Tice – who spoke to both ABC News and the NYT – lost his job at the NSA after the agency revoked his security clearances, citing psychological concerns.
Gary Aguirre, a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigator, says he was fired after blowing the whistle on what he described as "preferred treatment" towards John Mack during an insider trading investigation. Mack was set to become the Chief Executive Officer of Morgan Stanley, and Aguirre said his colleagues at the SEC were unwilling to question Mack. "I was told that it would be very difficult to get approval to take his testimony because of his powerful political connections," Aguirre told ABC News. Aguirre's accounts were the catalyst of several hearings on Capitol Hill about the SEC's enforcement of Wall Street regulation, but "Wall Street has long tentacles," said Aguirre, "and those tentacles reached into the SEC and cost me my job.
Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse
Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee, alleged the Halliburton contracting firm illegally obtained billions in government contracts related to its operations in Iraq during the Iraq War. Greenhouse told members of Congress the Halliburton contracts were "the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career." She was later demoted and had her security clearance revoked. Greenhouse refused to resign and is now focused on a stronger federal protection for whistleblowers.
Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent turned whistleblower, went public about the bureau's alleged mishandling of the suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui's case. She shed light on FBI and intelligence community issues in 2002 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, charging that the FBI's incompetence may have made the U.S. vulnerable to the 9/11 attacks. After unsuccessful attempts to warn the officials about the dangers of launching the Iraq War, Rowley stepped down from her position as a Chief Division Counsel and went back to being an FBI special agent. She retired from the agency in 2004 after 24 years of service.
Joe Darby is the Army reservist who sounded the alarm about the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos that highlighted prisoner abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers. The photos became a worldwide scandal that prompted the investigation and conviction of several soldiers involved in the photo sessions, while Darby was hailed as hero by some and as a traitor by others. He received death threats and had to move his family to a military protection residence after his house was vandalized. In his statement, Darby said he made the disclosure because "it violated everything I personally believed in and all I'd been taught about the rules of war."
Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator, said she was fired from the bureau's Washington field office after accusing a co-worker of illicit activities and security breaches. Edmonds, who worked as a Turkish translator for the FBI, alleged that sensitive national security information – including nuclear weapon secrets – were compromised by corrupt officials who were paid off by foreign intelligence agents. Her lawsuit was thrown out of court after the Bush Administration invoked the state secrets privilege, which allows the government to withhold information to safeguard national security.
Justin Grant and Yuliya Talinova contributed to this report.