Privacy SOS

FBI employee faced retaliation after blowing the whistle inside Bureau about agents stealing items from Ground Zero

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report on whistleblower retaliation complaints at the FBI. The results are pretty alarming.

From the executive summary:

Unlike employees of other executive branch agencies, FBI employees do not have a process to seek corrective action if they experience retaliation based on a disclosure of wrongdoing to their supervisors or others in their chain of command who are not designated officials.

Why is this happening?

This difference is due, in part, to DOJ's decisions about how to implement the statute governing FBI whistleblowers. In 2014, DOJ reviewed its regulations and, in an effort to balance competing priorities, recommended adding more senior officials in FBI field offices to the list of designated entities, but did not recommend adding all supervisors. DOJ cited a number of reasons for this, including concerns about the additional resources and time needed to handle a possible increase in complaints if DOJ added supervisors.

In short, DOJ didn't want to create more avenues for whistleblowers to report retaliation complaints because it was afraid doing so would lead to an increase in complaints. That's like saying you don't want to build a hospital because you're afraid it will attract sick people.

The GAO doesn't seem impressed:

[D]ismissing retaliation complaints made to an employee's supervisor or someone in that person's chain of command leaves some FBI whistleblowers—such as the 17 complainants we identified—without protection from retaliation. By dismissing potentially legitimate complaints in this way, DOJ could deny some whistleblowers access to recourse, permit retaliatory activity to go uninvestigated, and create a chilling effect for future whistleblowers.

The problem of retaliation against whistleblowers within the FBI came to the attention of the GAO in part because of attention-grabbing stories like this one, which is cited in the report:

[I]n 2002, a former FBI agent alleged she suffered retaliation after disclosing that colleagues had stolen items from Ground Zero following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. DOJ found in her favor over 10 years after she reported the retaliation. GAO was asked to review DOJ's process for handling such complaints.

Among the recommendations GAO makes to the DOJ is that the latter "clearly convey to whom employees can make protected disclosures" within the FBI. The DOJ says they agree with the proposals for change. As the GAO writes, "[w]histleblowers help safeguard the federal government against waste, fraud, and abuse." If the DOJ doesn't make these changes, and FBI employees are afraid to blow the whistle even inside their agency, the whole country will suffer.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.