October 9, 2015
Silent State: Washington’s Campaign Against Whistle-Blowers
Posted on Feb 9, 2012
By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch
All of this has taken place in such a way that I cannot challenge it (except by writing and speaking about it in public—at additional risk). The State Department has standard disciplinary procedures that it could have invoked against me, but those leave room for public challenges and, in some cases, would allow me to force documents into the open that State would rather not share with you.
Hall Walkers: Ghosts in the Machine
Before “telework” existed as an option that allowed undesirable employees to be sent home and into a kind of benign house arrest, people like me at State were called “hall walkers.” They were the ones whom the Department no longer wanted as employees, but who could not be fired due to lack of evidence. So they would have their security clearances suspended without recourse, be removed from their assignments, and yet told that, to get paid, they needed to be physically present in the main State building eight hours a day.
Since they were not assigned to an office, State was wholly unconcerned about how they occupied themselves during those long empty days. And though as a “teleworker” I am not one, the hall walkers are still with us.
Square, Site wide
The main State building is enormous, with literally miles and miles of corridors, and the hall walker might wander them, kill time at the library, have a long lunch, stop in to chat with former colleagues still willing to be seen in his or her company. Even in the first FSO training course called A-100, young diplomats are advised that the most ignominious end to a career is not failing at your job, but being thrown into the purgatory of hall walking—still on the payroll but no longer a member of the tribe. Disowned, shunned, exiled in the ancient Greek tradition.
Hall walking is a far cry from being dragged through a trial or spending two years in solitary, but it exists on the same continuum. No one at State will say how many employees still exist in the shadow world of hall walking, but at least dozens is a reasonable guess.
I am told as well that State Department officials are increasingly moving to suspend security clearances for acts wholly outside the realm of security, like blogging they find offensive. One State Department Human Resources employee confided to me that this has, in fact, become the go-to strategy for winnowing out unwanted employees in the too-hard-to-fire category, a sad evolution, given the sorry history of the State Department in the McCarthy era.
For a government employee being punished extra-legally by an agency ignoring its own rules, there is still one recourse: the Office of the Special Counsel. Created in 1979, it was to be an ombudsman meant to keep an eye on governmental nastiness and ensure the implementation of the Whistleblower Protection Act. Empowered, among other things, to investigate and “make right” instances of federal retaliation against legitimate whistleblowers, the office was sidelined through several administrations.
Under George W. Bush, it was embroiled in scandal when its head, Special Counsel Scott Bloch, instead purged its staff of lawyers who disagreed with him and announced that he would not follow up on cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Last summer, Bloch pleaded guilty to deleting evidence from his computer while under investigation for retaliating against his own staff.
At a moment when government extra-legal retaliation against whistleblowers and leakers is on the rise, call it ironic, but the Office of the Special Counsel has seen a rebirth under its current head, Obama appointee Carolyn Lerner. As the Washington Post recently described her, Lerner has “gone to the mat and tried to expand the boundaries of the law’s protections for whistleblowers. She has lifted long-sagging morale at an agency that, instead of behaving as an independent watchdog, has treaded water for much of its existence.”
Specifically, Lerner reassigned staff members to review a backlog of cases against whistleblowers facing reprisals, including “veterans’ hospital staff members reporting poor lab procedures [and] air traffic controllers claiming flight-pattern dangers.” She has enforced a 60-day limit on responses from federal agencies. The Office seems to have re-embraced its mission. “She’s a pit bull,” says Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, which defends whistleblowers.
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