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Winging it on Whistleblowers

On March 11, President Obama issued a signing statement attached to an omnibus spending bill that qualified a small but important provision that would deny a salary to a federal manager who “interferes with or prohibits certain communications between federal employees and Members of Congress.” In his signing statement, the president said that the provision would not prevent the administration from supervising, controlling or correcting “employees’ communications with Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.”

Well, what exactly does that mean? What is “properly privileged or otherwise confidential”?

Yesterday, a coalition of good-government groups wrote to President Obama asking him to clarify, saying that his statement could be read as a warning to federal workers against acting as whistleblowers by communicating unclassified information to Congress. And that would contradict their legal rights.

The coalition, which includes such groups as the ACLU, American Federation of Government Employees, and Government Accountability Project, asked Obama to endorse legislation that would protect from retaliation federal employees who expose waste, fraud, abuse, suppression of federal research, and threats to public health and safety, and give them the right to a jury trial. The groups also asked that the president direct federal agency heads to institute “no-retaliation” policies for employees.

As I’ve written before, the stimulus bill, despite its many attempts at transparency at accountability, strangely neglected to fully protect federal employee whistleblowers. Watchdog groups hoped those protections would be passed in some other legislation, but so far they haven’t, and the president’s signing statement appeared to weaken the minimal protections that federal employees already have.

In their letter, the coalition — which otherwise praises Obama for saying during the presidential campaign that he’d support whistleblowers and for his executive orders and memoranda concerning open government and the Freedom of Information Act — asked the president to make clear that pulling the rug out from under federal employee whistleblowers is not really what he meant to do.

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