The Washington Post reported on October 31 that “the House Judiciary Committee, after promising strict confidentiality, inadvertently sent the e-mail addresses of Justice Department whistle-blowers out to all those who have used a special tip line.” Vice President Cheney’s office got all 150 of the e-mail addresses. The Committee’s failure to design an effective system for dealing with confidential information strikes at the heart of one of the key reasons people hesitate to become whistleblowers—that they won’t be protected.
The Washington Post’s “In the Loop” column on October 31 included this little item:
E-Mail Follies, Cont’d
How many times do we have to remind people to double- and triple-check before hitting the “send” button?
In what has to be one of the more bizarre screw-ups of the Internet era, the House Judiciary Committee, after promising strict confidentiality, inadvertently sent the e-mail addresses of Justice Department whistle-blowers out to all those who have used a special tip line.
The error, first reported by TPMmuckraker, was compounded when the committee sent out a second e-mail to about 150 people who’ve used the tip line, trying to recall the first. Apparently, only the e-mail addresses were revealed—and doubtless many of them don’t reveal identities, and others, the Web site reported, appeared to be fake.
But one address was [redacted]
. That would be Cheney’s public address, so his office got all of the whistle-blowers’ e-mail addresses. Gotta give you a warm and toasty feeling.
In a statement, a committee spokesman blamed a “technological error” and said it was trying to see if those exposed really were whistle-blowers or just random whiners using the hotline.
“The Committee apologizes for any concern this error may have caused, and is making every effort to protect the confidentiality” for those who used the hotline.
Little more effort wouldn’t hurt.
Rick Piltz comment:
The House Judiciary Committee has violated what I consider to be Rule #1: You DO NOT compromise the confidentiality of inside sources who choose to remain confidential. Good intentions are not enough. The Committee’s credibility in dealing with whistleblowers is shot and will be difficult, at best, to re-establish. Under the current circumstances, I would not recommend that anyone trust the Committee with sensitive inside information.
The Judiciary Committee staff’s failure to protect confidentiality strikes at the heart of one of the key reasons people hesitate to become whistleblowers—that they won’t be protected. The staff may have jeopardized the positions of some of those they outed, even though inadvertently. And this could well have a chilling effect on potential government whistleblowers who might be deterred from coming forward in the future.
Climate Science Watch calls on Committee Chairman Conyers to establish accountability and take corrective action to prevent a recurrence. We also call on the Chairman to move legislation to provide immediate access to district court for whistleblowers if they are retaliated against as a result of Congressional breaches of confidentiality.
The Committee issued a statement of explanation on October 29. The statement, while attempting to be reassuring, reveals what seem to me to be several flaws in how the Committee’s system for communication with inside sources was designed and handled.
First, asking people to trust the confidentiality of e-mail communication to a political entity like a legislative committee is questionable. Electronic communication has so much potential for glitches, human error (as apparently happened in this case), hacking, forwarding and spreading of information into wider loops of readership, and so forth, that generally alternative modes of communication are preferable. I would be more inclined to use one-to-one phone conversations and face-to-face meetings as much as possible—and securely-delivered hardcopy documents, at least until a relationship of trust in additional communication methods is established between specific individuals.
Second, the whistleblower should have a say in whom to blow the whistle to. Asking whistleblowers to trust a system in which Members and staff of both parties would have access from the outset to communications that are likely to contain, in some cases, sensitive and even potentially incriminating information about the actions of public officials, including administration appointees, is questionable—especially in a political context so short on trust that it apparently took four months to negotiate an arrangement for sharing access to the communications (during which time the communications to the Committee have been allowed to just sit there with no one taking action on them, as though nothing was time-sensitive). Even in the absence of a major staff screw-up like sending the e-mail addresses of all your sources to the Vice President, the system designed by the Committee deserves skepticism about whether it could be trusted to protect sources.
Other points: Whistleblowers and their information should be handled case by case by skillful professional staff. Communicate with sources one by one, not as a collectivity. Don’t “task to clerical staff” the handling of highly sensitive information.
If a legislative office wants to deal with whistleblowers and inside sources, they should develop professional tradecraft along the lines of a whistleblower organization. They could learn something from the Government Accountability Project about how to do this.