Welles: Deeper Throat

Even with protections, those who dare to speak out often endure pain and rejection.

With the secret of Deep Throat's identity revealed after 30 years, we may now have 30 more years of debate about whether the FBI's former deputy director was a hero or a scoundrel. Because The Washington Post's source for some of its Watergate stories was a high-ranking federal employee, the focus has turned to what it means to be a whistle-blower.

The newly revealed W. Mark Felt is becoming newly reviled in some circles. After all, he violated most government agencies' code: Don't talk to reporters. But with the Justice Department's involvement at that time, Felt had nowhere else to take the truth of Watergate.

Whistle-blowers don't usually have cheering crowds of supporters. Even with today's protections, those who dare to speak out often endure considerable pain and rejection.

When the Watergate scandal occurred, the only federal statute protecting whistleblowers was the First Amendment. Today, more than 90 laws and regulations concern whistle-blowing. Still, Stephen Kohn, chairman of the board of directors of the National Whistleblower Center, said the situation for whistle-blowers is not much better and, for some, may be worse.

"The law on whistle-blowing was intended to protect government employees who make disclosures to the news media," Kohn said.

In the 1968 case of Pickering v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court for the first time upheld government employees' right to blow the whistle on misconduct. The case involved a teacher who was dismissed for criticizing the Will County, Ill., Board of Education in a letter to a newspaper.

FBI employees are not protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act. They can blow the whistle only by going to the attorney general, the FBI director or the Justice Department's inspector general or Office of Professional Responsibility.

Kohn said the proposed personnel reforms at the Defense and Homeland Security departments further weaken such protections. And the Homeland Security Act explicitly exempted the Transportation Security Administration from the whistleblower act.

He said employees shouldn't approach the chain of command with a major concern without first getting legal counsel. "Without knowing the law and who to trust, you can lose protection," he said.

"Become informed," said Kohn, who has provided legal counsel to FBI employees, among others. "Know the types of evidence you must have to win your case."

Other options include Congress or the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency established to protect federal employees from reprisal for whistleblowing. Watchdog groups, such as the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Oversight, however, have charged that the office dismisses cases without proper review.

The road is rocky for whistle-blowers. Like Felt, the rewards come from your own moral compass.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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