Puffing Up The Whistle-Blowers

Greg O'Brien, Codfish Pres
 Silence—a reticence to speak out in times of need—can be piercing on matters of the public and community good. “A community is like a ship, “ notes a character in Henrick Ibsen’s classic play An Enemy of the People. “Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.” For those who knowingly abandon their watch, the late Martin Luther King, Jr. once warned, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

A Congressional subcommittee on national security last week began taking up “things that matter” in the testimony of five self-proclaimed whistle-blowers who detailed retaliations for their revelations. “It’s absolutely essential that we have a system that allows people to speak out about abuses, especially in the national security realm,” Rep. Christopher Shays told The New York Times. The Connecticut Republican is one of the leading defenders of whistle-blowers who have spoken out against illegal federal wiretapping, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other purported government misfeasance.

While the Bush Administration is busy caulking leaks of classified information, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are advocating for stronger protections for federal whistle-blowers—government employees who refuse to be silent about things that matter. At a press conference last week, Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, spoke of military officers  “whose lives were ruined, who were threatened and intimidated because they simply wanted to tell the truth.”

Both government and corporate employees have long been threatened and intimidated for detailing the sins of superiors or in the workforce. Perhaps the most celebrated case is the late Karen Silkwood, a Kerr-McGee Plutonium Plant employee in the early 1970s who drew national attention when she exposed numerous violations of health regulations at the Oklahoma plant. Among them: contamination exposure to workers; plutonium samples stored in desk drawers; and plutonium samples taken to local schools for “show and tell.”  Silkwood, the subject of two Hollywood movies, was killed in 1974 in a car crash still under question.  

More recently, Time Magazine termed 2002 “The Year of the Whistleblower,” honoring three women as Persons of the Year: Coleen Rowley, the FBI staff attorney who sent a blunt memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller on how the bureau mishandled strong recommendations from her Minneapolis field office to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, later indicted as a Sept. 11 co-conspirator; Cynthia Cooper, the WorldCom bean counter who exposed the cover up of  $3.8 billion in phony company loses; and Sherron Watkins the Enron vice president who cautioned then company chairman Kenneth Lay in 2001 of improper accounting practices.

If we, as a society, are to continue outing abuses in the federal and corporate domains, more safeguards and a change in government and business cultures will be needed. At present, protections are lacking. Next time you consider taking the helm of the community ship, don’t forget to bring along a raincoat.



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