Academic journal article Social Education

Protecting the Rights of Whistleblowers

Academic journal article Social Education

Protecting the Rights of Whistleblowers

Article excerpt

Coleen Rowley became one of the most famous whistleblowers in the United States in recent times when she blew the whistle on intelligence blunders at the FBI. The special agent's fiery 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2002 detailed the FBI's failure to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent known as the "20th hijacker," in connection with the September 11 attacks. Rowley was named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" in 2002 along with two other whistleblowers.

Rowley's team, based out of the FBI's Minneapolis office, arrested Moussaoui just weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Moussaoui had attended terrorist training camps in the Middle East and spent $8,000 on flight training for a Boeing 747. Rowley and her team requested a warrant to search his computer, but her supervisors denied the request. Moussaoui later pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit the atrocities, although he originally denied ties to 9/11, saying he had plans for a separate attack of his own.

In her memo to Mueller, Rowley criticized the FBI'S failure to act:

   Hopefully, with our nation's security on the line, you and
   our nation's other elected and appointed officials can rise
   above the petty politics that often plague other discussions
   and do the right thing. You do have some good ideas
   for change in the FBI but I think you have also not been
   completely honest about some of the true reasons for the
   FBI's pre-September 11th failures. Until we come clean
   and deal with the root causes, the Department of Justice
   will continue to experience problems fighting terrorism
   and fighting crime in general. (1)

Rowley's concerns were met with a great deal of high-powered support, attracting media attention, and fueling congressional investigations and hearings. They even gained the attention of the Special Staff of the 9/11 Joint Intelligence Committee. Rowley made use of this attention to raise awareness of the FBI's systemic failings and to force the organization to correct inaction, unwieldy paperwork, tangled bureaucracy, and what she saw as a "risk-adverse culture." Rowley's whistleblowing contributed to a revamping of the intelligence community. She recently announced plans to run for Congress and said the focus of her campaign will be on "ethical decisionmaking by government leaders." (2)

Rowley chose to be public with her actions, but another famous whistleblower chose to be exceedingly anonymous and was also very effective. This past summer it was revealed, to great public fanfare, that former FBI assistant director Mark Felt was the mysterious "Deep Throat" informant. Felt's work with Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped spark investigations into the Watergate break-in scandal that eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office.

These two cases were fairly unique: most whistleblower cases do not receive media attention to the extent that Rowley's and Deep Throat's have. And not every whistleblower is allowed to make as much of an impact on the problems they witness. The road to exposing government errors or corruption is very bumpy and very costly.

Introduction to Whistleblower Issues Thousands of federal workers, like Rowley and Felt, play key roles in achieving security for our nation. They do so as translators and investigators who handle sensitive intelligence, as officials who protect the safety and security of our nuclear weapons labs and power plants, as personnel who test the efficacy of airport baggage screening, and in many other ways.

Although the vast majority of federal employees and officials work in the best interest of the public, instances of wrongdoing do occur, not only in ways that waste tax dollars, but also in ways that compromise national security and the public health. Many workers raise their concerns to unresponsive employers and are then compelled to take those concerns to the press, Congress, or to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). …

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