This article originally appeared on www.republicreport.org
With unprecedented secrecy and increasingly disturbing acts inside the Trump administration, how can federal employees expose the truth?
On April 27, Donald Trump signed an executive order creating within the Department of Veterans Affairs a new office charged with protecting whistleblowers, that is, Department staff who want to report wrongdoing inside the VA. The administration trumpeted this step, and, if properly implemented, it could be useful.
Unfortunately, almost everything else that President Trump and his team has done regarding government integrity and openness has gone in the opposite direction -- with crackdowns on internal dissent and weakening of open government and ethical standards. Under Trump, career officials have been cautioned not to speak out, agencies have gone on the hunt for dissenters, Freedom of Information requests have been stalled, White House visitor logs have been hidden, records regarding resigned national security Michael Flynn have been withheld from Congress, conflict of interest standards, starting with Trump himself, have been gutted, and agencies have concealed circumstances where even those weaker conflict rules have been waived.
Key government operations are now like Trump's tax returns: locked away, shielded from public view.
Trump's disturbing dismissal last night of FBI director James Comey, the man directing the investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, heightens concerns that Trump and his team are concealing abuses and seeking to act with impunity.
In recent months, my colleagues and I have heard from numerous career federal government employees who allege growing misconduct, and radical abandonment of long-standing policies, inside their agencies since Trump's inauguration. They feel a responsibility to speak out.
If you are one such insider, with a patriotic determination to expose abuses or violations of law inside your federal agency, and want know how you can do that, here are some things to consider. (To be clear: I'm not your lawyer, and I'm not providing you with legal advice -- only some basic background information.)
1. Consider whether the public will benefit if the concealed information is exposed. It seems clear -- from the Trump family's blatant disregard for conflicts of interest regarding their business dealings, to deceptions by senior officials like Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions regarding interactions with Russian officials, to EPA head Scott Pruitt's slippery explanations of his emails with energy lobbyists, and now, the Comey firing -- that the Trump administration is engaged in troubling behavior, some of it hidden from public view. You might decide that you want to blow the whistle on serious misconduct.
You might also think it appropriate to expose behind-the-scenes efforts to change long-standing policy positions, whether the issue is environmental protection, or civil rights, or something else. Some will argue that such leaking of policy matters is heroic -- trying to alert the public to impending changes so they can register their opposition before it's too late. Others will say that exposing such developments is not patriotic sounding of the alarm, but instead disloyal leaking. You have to decide that for yourself, based on the circumstances and your values.
One thing you surely want to guard against is leaking based not on principle and patriotism but rather on a personal beef with supervisors or a visceral dislike of the incumbent administration. If your motive really falls in the latter category, you might well regret your actions.
2. Know your legal obligations and risks. You will want to know whether sharing particular information might violate the law, and what the penalties for such violations might be. For starters, it's not only against the law for government employees entrusted with classified information to disclose such information; federal law also prohibits government employees from disclosing some other -- but not all -- categories of information, such as certain kinds of confidential business information.
If you've been a government employee, particularly in the national security area, or a private contractor working for the government, you also may have signed a non-disclosure agreement committing you to keep some matters secret. As a candidate, Trump said he wanted to make all federal employees sign non-disclosure agreements, as he required of his business employees. Fortunately, though, that hasn't happened yet, and such an effort would fly in the face of the acknowledged First Amendment free speech rights of federal workers.
You should consider consulting a lawyer as to legal standards and risks; lawyers themselves have an obligation to keep such discussions secret (and they almost always do).
3. Decide if you want to disclose your identity. This is a big decision. Here's the trade-off: A person who stands behind the exposed information provides more moral authority and credibility to the revelations. But there are advantages to staying anonymous: When you expose yourself, you can risk your job, harassment at the office and on the Internet, and, potentially, legal consequences.