August 22, 2013 in Opinion

Dana Milbank: Obama must protect whistle-blowers

Dana Milbank
 

President Barack Obama, in his news conference this month, said Edward Snowden was wrong to go public with revelations about secret surveillance programs because “there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.”

This is a common refrain among administration officials and some lawmakers: If only Snowden had made his concerns known through the proper internal channels, everything would have turned out well. The notion sounds reasonable, as do the memorandums Obama signed supposedly protecting whistle-blowers.

But it’s a load of nonsense. Ask Gina Gray.

Gray is the Defense Department whistle-blower whose case I have been following for five years. She was the Army civilian worker who, before and after her employment, exposed much of the wrongdoing at Arlington National Cemetery – misplaced graves, mishandled remains and financial mismanagement – and she attempted to do it through the proper internal channels. Pentagon sources have confirmed to me her crucial role in bringing the scandal to light.

For her troubles, Gray was fired. The Pentagon’s inspector general recommended corrective action to compensate Gray.

According to documents just obtained by Gray’s lawyer, Mark Zaid, Army Secretary John McHugh rejected the inspector general’s suggestion. McHugh wouldn’t offer Gray anything because she was on “probationary status at the time of her termination.”

Gray, who worked in Iraq as an Army contractor and Army public affairs specialist, is now unemployed and living in North Carolina.

“I went all the way up the channels,” Gray told me Tuesday. “This is what happens when you do that.”

In response to my inquiries to the Pentagon, an Army spokesman, Col. David H. Patterson Jr., issued a statement saying that Gray’s status as a whistle-blower was limited and that her firing was unrelated. “We consider the matter closed,” he said, calling the Army’s position “validated” by a federal court’s “dismissal of Ms. Gray’s lawsuit – with prejudice.”

The lawsuit was dismissed this week – because Gray dropped it. She could no longer afford the legal fees.

Sadly, Gray’s case is emblematic of the way this administration has handled whistle-blowers. Obama came into office pledging transparency and professing admiration for government workers who expose abuses. But his administration has pursued more cases under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined (including the prosecution of National Security Agency workers who tried to register their objections through “proper” channels).

Gray’s ordeal began in April 2008 after I covered the Arlington funeral of an officer killed in the Iraq war. While there, I observed a dispute between Gray and deputy superintendent Thurman Higginbotham, the man later at the center of the Arlington scandals. Higginbotham was trying to prevent reporters from observing the burial, in violation of the family’s wishes and Arlington’s regulations – and Gray, though new on the job, told him he was wrong.

Gray registered her objections internally – but loudly. She refused to sign off on a report to the Army secretary’s office that was a whitewash of the way burials were handled at Arlington because, she said, her higher-ups were violating Defense Department regulations. She began to learn of other misdeeds by Arlington management and attempted to let military officials know; in June 2008, according to one of Gray’s legal filings, she told the commanding general of the Military District of Washington about “major problems” at the cemetery, involving fraud, mismanagement and broken regulations.

Two days later, she was fired.

A 2010 report by the Pentagon’s inspector general designated Gray as a whistle-blower and concluded that, contrary to regulations, Arlington management “elected to terminate her, rather than make a reasonable effort to address those policy issues” that she raised or to “document performance deficiencies that ANC management later claimed formed the basis for Ms. Gray’s termination.”

After her firing, Gray passed along information about mismanagement at Arlington to three congressional offices, all of which received false assurances from the Army that everything was under control. Gray eventually provided her findings to reporters and to the inspector general, leading to the ouster of the Arlington management.

Snowden’s case is quite a bit different, and murkier; his dalliances with China and now Russia raise questions about his motives. But Gray’s case shows that Snowden was correct about one thing: Trying to pursue the proper internal channels doesn’t work.

If the Obama administration wants whistle-blowers to take the “proper” route, it needs to protect them when they do.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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