THE MAGAZINE

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

By Sherry L. Harowitz

It is said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. When it comes to national security, however, the squeaky whistleblower gets discredited. And while there are laws against retaliation, national security whistleblowers do not have the same legal protections that most other federal employees enjoy.

Take the case of Richard Levernier, one of several witnesses who spoke to a congressional committee looking into the issue. After raising concerns internally about nuclear plant security, Levernier said, “My superiors told me that my zeal for finding problems was not appreciated and my career would suffer as a result.”

Levernier was not intimidated. But when he later gave the media a copy of a report on problems at Los Alamos National Laboratory (after it had been officially declassified and put on a government Web site), his security clearance was removed. He won his appeal on the merits, but the Office of Special Counsel had no authority to force the Department of Energy to reinstate the clearance. That effectively ended his career—and sent a clear message to future whistleblowers.

Other whistleblowers recounted similar experiences. Removal of the security clearance—vital for anyone working in intelligence—was the weapon most often used against them when they raised concerns about security problems within their organizations. Often their clearances were removed after they shared information with Congress or cooperated with authorized government investigations. They were later cleared of wrongdoing but their clearances were never reinstated.

The extent of the problem was highlighted at the hearing by the fact that a Congressional Research Service specialist who wrote a report on whistleblower retaliation, called “National Security Whistleblowers,” has himself now apparently been subjected to retaliatory pressures, according to several witnesses. Legislation that would remedy the situation by strengthening protections is currently stalled in Congress.

Why does it matter? Since 9-11 “a great deal of time and money has been spent retooling the national security apparatus to meet new threats,” noted Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT), who chaired the hearing. “And we need whistleblowers from inside those programs, national security whistleblowers, to tell us when things go wrong.”

It’s human nature for people in any organization to be a bit protective of their own group. They come to think of themselves as a team. And they expect every member to be loyal to that team. That’s laudable to a point. But that team spirit cannot be allowed to trump the larger duty to ensure the national security. Whistleblowers see that.

“Breaking bureaucratic ranks to speak unpleasant and unwelcome truths takes courage,” said Shays.

Any attempt to silence these Bravehearts should concern us all.

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