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Kudos for a Whistle-Blower

June 06, 2002

Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley's testimony before a Senate panel today should be accompanied by the applause of an appreciative nation, both for her and for other principled whistle-blowers.

Rowley, who fired off the now-famous 13-page memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III about the roadblocks her office faced in obtaining a search warrant against suspected 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui, took a big risk. Despite legal protections, whistle-blowers often suffer retaliation from their bosses. But Rowley's and other cases show why whistle-blowing isn't snitching, but a public service.

In California, it was Department of Insurance lawyer Cindy Ossias who leaked documents to the Assembly Insurance Committee that led to the demise of Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush's career.

Ossias showed in detail that Quackenbush had reached secret settlements with six insurance companies after the 1994 Northridge earthquake that permitted the companies to avoid fines by contributing funds to private foundations Quackenbush had established. Even if you're a government attorney, Ossias demonstrated, the public interest comes first. She risked her job by technically violating client confidentiality rules, and Quackenbush tried to fire her, but in the end the state Legislature protected Ossias' job.

Since Sept. 11, whistle-blowing has only acquired more importance. Bogdan Dzakovic, a Federal Aviation Administration special agent for 14 years, said this year that government officials have brushed aside his complaints that security tests at airports have been manipulated for success and that agents were told to bury information about poor security. The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, has said that there is a "substantial likelihood" that Dzakovic's allegations are correct.

Randy Robarge, a nuclear plant safety expert who lost his job after warning about safety defects at a commercial plant in Illinois, has recently warned about nuclear plants' vulnerability to aerial attack and inadequate employee screening.

Ever since Congress passed the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, federal employees who sound the alert about cover-ups, incompetence or outright wrongdoing have been offered some safeguards from bosses who try to fire them or transfer them into meaningless jobs. But whistle-blowing is still no painless exercise. It brings possible ostracism by colleagues and the glare of publicity.

When Rowley testifies today, listeners will be reminded that she had the courage of her convictions while others around her found reasons to stay quiet. Congress can honor her by making sure that Mueller does not transfer her to a lesser job as punishment for exposing his agency's weaknesses.

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