“People who are doing something behind closed doors that is an abuse of power should worry about whether what they’re doing will come out. They shouldn’t feel safe in doing it.” The Government Accountability Project’s American Whistleblower Tour 2011-12 made a stop in Houston, Texas, and CSW director Rick Piltz, GAP’s National Security and Human Rights director Jesselyn Radack, and Texas whistleblower Kenneth Kendrick spoke to and answered questions from a roomful of law students and others, as part of a day-long course in whistleblower legal issues.
GAP’s American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability is a new project that seeks to educate the public − particularly college students around the country − about the phenomenon of whistleblowing. The 13 stops on the 2011-12 tour have been the first incarnation of what GAP plans to institute as a yearly effort.
At the South Texas College of Law on March 9, students heard from Jesselyn Radack, Department of Justice whistleblower and now the director of GAP’s National Security and Human Rights Program; Ken Kendrick, Peanut Corporation of America whistleblower; and myself. For more information about my case see the links at http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/people/.
A few excerpts from my remarks during the Q&A on our panel – lightly edited transcript:
Q: How many of your coworkers knew what was going on and believed it to be wrong? And why do you think they didn’t choose to speak out when you did?
RP: That’s a good question. People could see what was going on. Even the director of the program, who was an Administration political appointee, indicated that he knew full well that some of his colleagues lacked integrity. But most people I dealt with were career civil service federal science managers. They could see that this was politically sensitive. Generally speaking they’re not boat rockers, they’re conflict averse. And scientists as well, who might be intellectual boat rockers but are not political boat rockers.
They started engaging in some of what I would call ‘anticipatory self-censorship’. If you’re writing reports, tone them down if they have to go through White House clearance. Don’t do something that might jeopardize your position, your program, your budget for the scientists you’re funding. There are a lot of ways to rationalize not taking action. And I tend not to judge individuals too harshly on that, it’s a difficult situation.
But one of the most disappointing and discouraging things was that there was almost no pushback at the level of the senior executives in the US Global Change Research Program. The way they just folded under political pressure was really an eye-opener to me. These ‘complicity’ issues are really interesting and important — people need to think about it in terms of their own experience when they find themselves in that situation.
There was a screenwriter, the guy who wrote Master and Commander, interviewed me once, and at the end of it he said, I think the most interesting thing in your story is the way so many knowledgeable senior people here fall silent in the face of political misrule.
Washington is not a free speech environment. Of course there are so many people who know much more than they will ever say. You trade your public voice to try to have inside influence, and so people don’t say anything; they self-censor. For me that only works if I feel represented by the leadership I’m working under. So that contradiction finally rubbed itself raw in my case.
Maybe I have more of a tendency to dissent. Maybe I saw something they didn’t see. We seemed to have differing views on how to respond to what seemed to me to be a fundamentally unacceptable situation. Maybe they thought they had more to risk than I did. I can speak only for myself.
Q: What would have happened if you had not blown the whistle?
RP: Well, I guess there are the effects on me, the effects on the program I worked with, and the effects on the wider public. If I had stayed where I was…the situation was becoming very corrosive to my spirit. It would have been existentially almost impossible to stay on and keep the discontent under wraps, and I would have had a lot of negative self-judgment about not doing what I knew I needed to do. Although my financial situation would be better if I had just kept my head down.
As for the program, once there were a few high-visibility whistleblower cases — and perhaps the highest visibility was Jim Hansen, the most eminent federal climate scientist at NASA, whom the White House attempted to muzzle within about six months of my case, and he pushed back also, in the New York Times — the Administration started to back off on some of the censorship. But by then the message had gotten though to the feds that there was a lot of political tension around global warming issues and self-censorship took over to some extent.
And of course, it had become evident that, regardless of the science, the Bush Administration had no intention of supporting a meaningful climate change policy. So, having earlier suppressed the National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts, they started to allow various specialized climate change assessment reports to come out — but usually with little or no publicity, and the Administration officials essentially ignored them.
There were a few significant cases that happened after I left. For example, the Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had her Congressional testimony on the public health impacts of climate change heavily redacted at the insistence of the Vice President’s office to take out all the substantive material. She was a good soldier about it and acted like nothing had happened.
And the White House suppressed a key EPA regulatory policy report, required by law, that concluded that greenhouse gases pose a threat to public welfare and must be regulated under the Clean Air Act. They buried that until the Bush Administration was gone, and it had to be reactivated and completed under the Obama Administration.
One thing I told myself was, the stuff that you’re seeing on the inside is not being covered. And the way the story was being covered for the public was mainly that it was just a policy debate about global warming, just a scientific debate about global warming. What people weren’t seeing was that the guys who were running the Bush Administration knew better. They knew exactly what the scientists were saying. They were, in effect, misrepresenting the intelligence. So it wasn’t really just a policy debate. It was a distortion of the relationship between science advice and policy making.
But so much of this, the specific actions that were taken to impede honest climate change communication, was ‘inside baseball’ stuff – it was kind of complicated to explain in detail how it works. The story was not being covered well because nobody had the information they needed to tell it. So I thought, unless I do it, it’s not going to come out. And I kept pushing myself in that direction. It took a long time. It wasn’t until the beginning of Bush’s second term, when I saw several developments that made it clear that the political pressure on the climate change program was likely to be greater, not less, in terms of control of communications.
Finally one more thing happened that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and I said okay that’s it, I’m not doing this anymore, and I essentially resigned. And then the story came out. There was a reporter with the New York Times, Andrew Revkin – probably the only newspaper reporter in the country who had global environment as a beat. He knew the federal research program, knew the cast of characters, understood the issues, knew the kind of position I was in. So, I gave him the story, which I was free to start telling.
I had put together a significant amount of documentation (and I would suggest anybody in this position should document) on what I would call an abuse of power. I worked with counsel at the Government Accountability Project to be clear about my legal status in going public.
That story came out in the New York Times, then it was picked up widely by other media. And the oil industry guy in the White House resigned a couple of days later, which I thought was really quite remarkable, because usually that Administration made a great display of being impervious. Then several days later it was announced that he was taking a job with ExxonMobil. And I thought, “That’s more like it, that closes the loop.”
At that point the media covered it as a fox guarding the chicken coop story. It was a very concise and elegant little narrative that reporters made out of it that didn’t require explaining greenhouse gases, polar bears, and climate models. It wasn’t a science page story, it was a political story. I did a lot of interviews. I was sort of surprised at the amount of interest, at the legs that story had.
The story seemed to help open up something for people. I think it contributed to undercutting the Administration’s reputation on the global warming problem in a lot of people’s eyes. Then there was Hurricane Katrina that summer, and the disastrous lack of federal preparedness in spite of the warnings they’d had, and the incompetent response. Then other people started to come forward, and there was a Congressional investigation, there were FOIA requests, and a lot came out, stuff I had not been aware of in my particular position. So I think it helped to open the story up for public discourse and to frame a narrative for people that was a little more accurate than the story people had been getting before.
Q: I’m 33 so I’m still relatively young, I do remember President Reagan a little bit. But it seems like this whistleblower concept is a relatively new phenomenon, I didn’t even hear about it until Enron. Is it really that Washington, D.C., is more corrupt than ever before, is it the media is more involved? Why is it that whistleblowing seems to me to be a relatively new phenomenon, or am I just too young to remember?
Jesselyn Radack: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers was 40 years ago, so not new. It has been going on for a long time. I don’t know how long the word “whistleblower” has been used. Ellsberg was a whistleblower when he released the Pentagon Papers, and his disclosures are widely credited with helping to end the Vietnam War. He was also the first person in our country charged under the Espionage Act with mishandling information, and there were two more people who were not spies in between, and now Obama has six prosecutions going.
RP: I wonder whether the more common use of the term “whistleblower” may be of somewhat more recent vintage. It’s not something I had given a lot of thought to until it became part of my experience, and now I go back and I look at stories from earlier periods, and I say “yeah, that person was a whistleblower.”
[Follow-up note from after the event: Ralph Nader is said to have coined the term in the 1970s and authored a book titled Whistleblowing, published in 1974. The famous whistleblower cases of Frank Serpico and Karen Silkwood also date from that time, as does the Watergate investigation and its informant ‘Deep Throat’. The nonprofit Government Accountability Project, the leading whistleblower counsel and advocacy group, was founded in 1977. Climate Science Watch is a GAP-sponsored project.]
I’m more attuned to it now than I was then, probably a great deal more than most people are. I’ve come to view whistleblowing as a significantly underutilized, underappreciated, and undersupported form of public service. My bias now is that there probably should be a great deal more whistleblowing. I can think of all sorts of things, inside the corporate world, for example, where it would be very useful to the public interest if people would just come out and say, “okay, I’m going to tell you what’s really going on here.”
I think the possibility that someone will be a whistleblower – and visible public examples of when people brought criminality, fraud, or abuse of power to light and did some good with it – is a good thing to have in society. Behind closed doors in the public or private sector, when high-level people are engaging in decisionmaking that is of questionable legality or ethics, the idea that there might be someone in the room whose conscience will be sufficiently troubled that they decide to not go along with it, could have a deterrent effect as well. People who are doing something behind closed doors that is an abuse of power should worry about whether what they’re doing will come out. They shouldn’t feel safe in doing it.