Op-Ed: Don’t Let Whistleblowers Get Blown Away

As the eyes and ears of public morality and safety, insiders who warn of corporate and government wrongdoing deserve protection.

bradley manning protest

Demonstrators march in a protest during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. The demonstrators protested for the release of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, a divisive figure who is regarded either as a traitor or a whistleblower for providing information to WikiLeaks. (Photo: John Adkisson/Reuters)

As Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) for nearly 34 years, it has been my honor to protect all types of “whistleblowers”—employees who use free speech rights to challenge abuses of power that betray the public trust.

While the term whistleblower emerged in the latter half of the 20th century, these types of truth-tellers have existed throughout history. Through the freedom to protest, they serve as the lifeblood of accountability. Through the freedom to warn, they have prevented avoidable tragedies—when we listened.

Whistleblowers are pioneers of change by questioning and keeping society from being stagnant. They personify why freedom of speech makes a difference.  

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The risks of ignoring whistleblowers are grave and palpable. Our country has seen firsthand what happens when informed warnings aren’t heeded. The 9/11 attacks, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Enron, the 2008 financial collapse—each time insiders tried to tell us about problems, vulnerabilities, or wrongdoing before the disaster occurred.

And when we listen to whistleblowers? Killer drugs are removed from shelves, airlines are made safer from hijackings, our troops are better protected from roadside bombs, unsafe food is condemned, illegal and unsafe nuclear practices are thwarted, and secretive improper climate change research edits are exposed. The list goes on.   

Whistleblowers risk their professional lives to defend the public. While retaliation against such truth-tellers is timeless, our country is in the midst of a cultural and legal revolution. After centuries as outcasts, the vigilance of whistleblowers is being recognized—lionized—as being the public’s eyes and ears.

President Obama just signed legislation overhauling the whistleblower rights of government workers, and Congress has passed 12 laws for corporate whistleblowers since the millennium. Even the United Nations and World Bank now ban whistleblower retaliation.

The Government Accountability Project has been on the frontlines of all these campaigns, but our work is not done. Private sector rights are hit-or-miss across 46 piecemeal laws, and no two are alike. Federal workers still cannot go to court to enforce their rights, unlike most corporate employees.

While taxpayers support 2 million federal civil servants, we fund 12 million contractor employees. Whistleblowers working for government contractors must proceed at their own risk when defending the taxpayers.

There’s an immediate and real opportunity for improvement in the protections to employees of federal government contractors. While taxpayers support two million federal civil servants, we fund 12 million contractor employees. When these workers challenge contractual fraud, or waste in stimulus spending, they have limited rights. Whistleblowers working for government contractors must proceed at their own risk when defending the taxpayers.

Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) and Carl Levin (D-Mi) are seeking to include best practice whistleblowers rights for government contractors in the pending National Defense Authorization Act. Those contracts cost $700 billion annually, with little or no accountability beyond whistleblowers.

Please help us demand accountability! Through the petition at TakePart.com/whistleblower, write legislators and urge them to keep best practice whistleblower rights in the defense bill, so taxpayers start getting our money’s worth. We deserve nothing less.

Do you think it is possible for whistleblowers to be protected from workplace retaliation? Leave your conclusions in COMMENTS.

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