Belatedly, a Defense of a Whistleblower

After vowing to run a transparent government, President Obama oversaw an unprecedented legal assault on whistleblowers, only now offering up a modest concession, as Linda Lewis explains.

By Linda Lewis

A finding by an Obama administration panel – reached last May but only now becoming public – that the National Security Agency’s inspector general improperly retaliated against a whistleblower may be an attempt to gussy up President Obama’s otherwise ugly legacy for punishing government officials who protest wrongdoing.

Seal of the National Security Agency

The private watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), reports that a three-person panel — authorized by Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19 and consisting of inspectors general from the CIA, Treasury and Justice — concluded last May that the NSA’s inspector general retaliated against a whistleblower whose identity has not been released.

Based on the panel’s finding, NSA Director Michael Rogers sent NSA Inspector General George Ellard a termination notice. Ellard is now on administrative leave while he appeals the decision.

This newly disclosed finding also is relevant to the high-profile case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who decided in 2013 that the only way to alert the public to the NSA’s warrantless bulk collection of electronic data on Americans was to take his information to the news media. After Snowden fled the United States and ended up stranded in Russia, Ellard disputed Snowden’s claim that internal protests would not have worked. Ellard said in 2014, “Snowden could have come to me. We have surprising success in resolving the complaints that are brought to us.”

Now, Ellard faces termination over his alleged retaliation against a whistleblower who did go through channels with a complaint reportedly about alleged overspending on a conference, an abuse far less sensitive than the ones Snowden exposed.

This controversy appears to be the first whistleblower case in the intelligence community to receive a high-level review since Obama’s PPD-19 was issued in 2012. Information about the case, described by POGO as “closely held but unclassified,” was leaked to POGO by “sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

The unnamed whistleblower provided a statement (after it was reviewed by NSA and the intelligence community’s inspector general) to the publication Government Executive, saying: “I am proud that my case was the first to move through the President’s IC whistleblowing initiative of 2012. … The agency is currently engaged with me on the remedial portion of corrective action, the action needed to make me whole. To me, the PPD-19 process and the assistance of the Intelligence Community Inspector General’s Office was critical to my success personally and professionally.”

POGO also said it reached out “to the NSA employee and victim of Ellard’s retaliation, posing a detailed series of questions about what happened through an official intermediary. POGO has been told that the whistleblower composed answers to at least some of those queries, and was seeking NSA approval before releasing them. So far, there is no sign that such approval has been granted.”

Last-Minute Lipstick

That the revelation of the panel’s May finding against Ellard arrived in the last month of Obama’s administration raised suspicions that the outgoing president was applying some last-minute lipstick to his ugly use of the Espionage Act to punish national security whistleblowers, including Thomas Drake, Stephen Kim, Shami Leibowitz, John Kiriakou, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeffrey Sterling.

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. (Photo credit: The Guardian)

Drake, Kiriakou and Sterling also reported wrongdoing through authorized channels but were not protected from zealous searches for small or inadvertent errors to severely punish them. Might the NSA case reflect a change of heart toward whistleblowers or was it mostly a cosmetic exercise?

Unfortunately, we don’t have much information on how other whistleblower cases were resolved. But where light shines more brightly, we see continued persecution of whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Sterling. When Sterling’s attorneys appealed his conviction, which was based on innuendo and circumstantial evidence, the Justice Department remained steadfastly vindictive. Meanwhile, Sterling’s wife says prison officials are denying him medical care for a life-threatening condition. President Obama, who could remedy the situation, has done nothing.

These continuing abuses indicate that federal officials, including the President, still cling to a view of whistleblowing that is misguided and purposefully cruel. That view contrasts sharply with a benign attitude toward leaks that put the administration in a good light.

Hostility toward whistleblowers is now so deeply embedded in government, and immunization of senior officials from accountability is so widespread, that it’s hard to imagine punishment of a senior retaliating official being anything but a temporary setback. Power and prestige tend to be the more decisive factor in how these cases play out. Consider the example of General Petraeus, a high-level leaker who fell from grace into a comfortable safety net and quickly emerged as a candidate for Secretary of State (though President-elect Trump passed Petraeus over for the job).

Officials continue to smear whistleblowers with allegations unsupported by credible evidence. This week, the House of Representatives released a report in which U.S. intelligence officials allege that Edward Snowden is “in contact” with Russian intelligence. Snowden’s attorney responded that the report “combines demonstrable falsehoods with deceptive inferences to paint an entirely fictional portrait of an American whistleblower.”

Punishment of a retaliating official is extremely rare. For that reason alone, it is cause for at least modest celebration even when we suspect a farce. If even one NSA whistleblower feels vindicated, hallelujah! But, while senior officials publicly vilify whistleblowers and privately discipline their abusers, we know in our hearts the system is still broken.

Linda Lewis is a writer and web editor for the Whistleblower Support Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides guidance and counseling to whistleblowers. Previously, she worked for the federal government as a specialist in emergency preparedness for disasters involving weapons of mass destruction. [A version of this article first appeared at Whistleblowing Today at]

13 comments for “Belatedly, a Defense of a Whistleblower

  1. January 2, 2017 at 13:38

    Ya sure, everyone is given a termination slip, while they silently retire with their 100,000 bucks a year retirement and their 500,000 401 acct. Half of America either works for some form of governments or are retired on huge pensions from the Govs. As soon as 1 guy is “fired” – another yes man takes his place. Same as the Muni, State workers- it won’t change until the whole country falls.

  2. Don
    December 29, 2016 at 05:42

    Linda has hit the nail on the head. My book “Don’t Kill the Messenger” shows how the government treats whistleblowers. Both Democrats and Republicans are equally bad for whistleblowers. It will get worse when Trump takes over.

  3. exiled off mainstreet
    December 26, 2016 at 14:08

    Obama was elected in part to restore the rule of law after the Bush regime’s extra-legal excesses. Instead he consolidated the destruction of the rule of law. His record against whistleblowers is the most deplorable in US history. His cynicism was breathtaking to the end and his challenges to Russia were life-threatening. He completed the destruction of the credibility of the Democratic party started by the Clintons, and the party now must be restored as a representative of decency and the rule of law or, indeed, replaced.

  4. Brian
    December 26, 2016 at 11:23

    December 20, 2016 Paul Craig Roberts Warns “Only A Counter-Coup Can Save American Democracy”  

    The CIA has long engineered coups in other countries. Now we are approaching at breakneck speed a CIA coup in the USA. When the presstitute media first published unverifired, unsourced leaks attributed to unnamed CIA officials, both the FBI and the Director of Homeland Security said that they did not embrace the accusation that Trump’s election was a result of Russian interference in the US presidential election.

  5. Josh Stern
    December 26, 2016 at 10:18

    The FBI is theoretically part of the US Justice system, but it has historically, by policy, reputation, and action, been the most almost 100% hostile to whistleblowing in all forms. Rather than investigating and supporting people who try to bring attention to criminal abuses by the US govt., the FBI takes the de facto position that its job is to silence those critics – no matter which part of govt. they are observing – by any available means, legal or criminal. For its own employees, contractors, and black bag job hires, observing these actions, there is no de factor protection.

    Various sources have reported that the least abusive treatment a whistleblower can expect, in practice, is to lose their security clearance and then, necessarily their job. There is a reason why all essentially FBI insider critics are noted as “former FBI”.

  6. Skip Edwards
    December 25, 2016 at 18:03

    Obama has never been in charge of much of anything for his eight years in office. He has been a figure head put on exhibition as some kind of attempt to try and prove racial disparity was coming to an end in the US. From the beginning the people who elected him had high hopes. It did not take long for the “look forward, not back” President to show his true colors. He has proven the statement true that goes somewhat like this. “It is not the color of a person’s skin that makes the person; but rather, it is what lies inside of him/her.”

    • Gregory Herr
      December 26, 2016 at 15:32

      As MLK so beautifully put it, people should be known “by the content of their character”.

  7. December 25, 2016 at 15:33

    Let’s be clear, no one at any level of leadership in government whether civil service, contractor or political appointee want whistleblowers and they never will. If it was up to them they’d be put to death. The government and mainstream media want to put the fear of God into anyone even considering doing such a thing as be a stooley. Anyway, there are no authorities to squeal to even if you wanted to unless you are squealing about very low-level corruption. As long as government is as large as it is and without engineered safeguards (we aren’t even in the same universe as that) government officials will continue as they have only more so. I say this as an ex-gov’t contractor, btw.

  8. Bill Bodden
    December 25, 2016 at 14:51

    Officials continue to smear whistleblowers with allegations unsupported by credible evidence.

    It is not only government officials that are hostile to whistelblowers. A sizable portion of the American people, possibly more than half, appears to be similarly vindictive even towards those who have revealed government spying on the American people. Among the many absurd postures revealed by citizens is the silence of “patriots” who claim they need their guns to defend the people against government tyranny. Some of them rallied to defend the illegal activities of the Bundy family in their disputes with the government in Nevada and Oregon, but none that I know of has raised a peep against increased surveillance by government agencies.

    • Joe Tedesky
      December 25, 2016 at 23:25

      Bill it’s all about education. Not what you learn in a schoolroom, but what a person may learn by digging into the news. Most people are sucked in by the media that portrays our government as always being in the right. If only our media had an objective narrative along with some really good investigative journalist, things could be different. In other words Bill there are many among us who don’t dig into the news the way you do. My one hope is that people like you, and many of the others who post comments here, have some kind of influence among the people around you.

  9. Bill Bodden
    December 25, 2016 at 14:37

    A finding by an Obama administration panel – reached last May but only now becoming public – that the National Security Agency’s inspector general improperly retaliated against a whistleblower may be an attempt to gussy up President Obama’s otherwise ugly legacy for punishing government officials who protest wrongdoing.

    As far as Obama’s legacy related to his treatment of whistleblowers is concerned it will be held in contempt by many people as long as Chelsea Manning remains incarcerated where she continues to suffer inhumane abuse. Perhaps Obama considers this treatment “appropriate” just as he considered then-Bradley Manning’s abuse “appropriate” at the Quantico Marine Base brig. The UN rapporteur on torture considered that earlier abuse to be possible torture.

    • evelync
      December 25, 2016 at 20:03

      RE: “Perhaps Obama considers this treatment “appropriate” just as he considered then-Bradley Manning’s abuse “appropriate” at the Quantico Marine Base brig. The UN rapporteur on torture considered that earlier abuse to be possible torture.”

      Yes I do agree, and your quotation marks around “appropriate” speak for themselves. Who knows what, if anything, President Obama is thinking about his own actions, errrr, his vacuum of inaction….
      Like Hillary Clinton, after all is said and done, his ambition and a lurking fear that challenging wrongdoing could cost everything, in the end means that our constitutional lawyer who had promised to close Guantanamo was, yes, capable of making some effort around the edges (releasing people from prison who had been entrapped by the Neoliberal 3-strikes-and-you’re-out abuses of power) but when it came to doing what is right if it ran afoul of the powerful National Security State chose to hide in it rather than confront it.
      I continue to be shocked by Obama’s belligerence towards Bernie Sanders which became apparent at the White House National Correspondent’s dinner. Obama teased and berated Bernie for being a hammer and sickle guy and therefore unelectable. Obama never understood that Bernie was NOT a communist or socialist but a “decent, honest, NEW DEAL democrat as Noam Chomsky pointed out.
      And even today Obama’s White House fails to understand that it would have taken a NEW DEAL candidate to beat Trump. So Obama is resisting Bernie’s choice, New Dealer Keith Ellison for DNC Chair by quietly supporting Labor Secretary and once VP possibility for Hillary, Tom Perez (and/or Podesta Group employee and SC Dem Chair Jaime Harrison?).
      As Cenk Uygur said recently on RT, interviewed by Larry King, Obama is very unlikely, post inauguration, to hold Trump’s feet to the fire on regressive policy choices. “That’s not who he (Obama) is.”

      • evelync
        December 25, 2016 at 21:46

        “NOT a communist or socialist”

        ….not that there’s anything wrong with it….. hah hah
        didn’t like sounding like I approve of witch hunts…..I don’t :)

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