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POGO Tells Congress: Troubling National Security Claims Overshadow Rights

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If you make a legally protected whistleblower disclosure you cannot legally be fired for your actions, right?

Unfortunately, that may not be the case. According to testimony that the Project On Government Oversight’s Public Policy Director, Angela Canterbury, will give on Capitol Hill this afternoon, “if an agency fires a national security sensitive employee for having made a legally protected whistleblower disclosure or because of that employee’s race or religion, the employee likely will not be able to seek justice.”

Federal workers with national security “sensitive” positions—importantly, not positions that require access to classified information or a security clearance—have seen their civil-service and whistleblower protections threatened as a result of a recent court battle. The disappointing Kaplan v. Conyers decision stripped these federal employees of their right to appeal adverse personnel actions at the Merit Systems Protection Board.

In light of the court’s decision, POGO has called on Congress to restore the rights of these workers. Canterbury will be testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Efficiency and Effectiveness of Federal Programs and the Federal Workforce at a hearing on “Safeguarding Our Nation’s Secrets: Examining the National Security Workforce.”

Canterbury will tell Congress, “We are deeply concerned that national security claims threaten to engulf our government and, with cruel irony, make us less safe.” Her testimony will call for action, saying, “It’s time for Congress to be far less deferential to this Administration and others on claims of national security. Congress must assert its constitutional powers to restore the balance between the branches of government. You can begin by reining in the nearly unbridled power of the agencies to misuse national security labels and make whole swaths of our government hidden and unaccountable.”

There has been a troubling lack of oversight of the expansive use of the national security sensitive designation. Despite a requirement for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to oversee the agencies’ use of such designations, OPM has admitted it has no idea how many federal workers are in national security sensitive positions. In addition, when POGO sent a Freedom of Information Act request “for reports from the past 10 years on agency use of the designations—reports that are mandated by Section 14 of E.O. 10450—OPM said there were no responsive records.” We are still waiting for a response to our latest request letter (over the 20-day deadline and counting). We hope this hearing will finally shed some light on these positions.

Meanwhile, OPM and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have proposed a rule that Canterbury says, “does nothing to reassure us that the Obama Administration plans to rein in the practically unlimited discretion afforded to agencies to designate national security sensitive positions, improve the deficient oversight, or protect the critical rights for whistleblowers and the civil service mandated by Congress.”

Thankfully, Congress is now looking closely at these issues. This hearing is a great first step.

Also, in advance of the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Rob Portman (R-Ohio) sent a letter to OPM and ODNI asking them to “defer finalizing this rule until the matter has been fully and publicly aired, and questions about its true scope, including the estimated costs and number of impacted federal workers, are answered.”

Tune in this afternoon to see what DNI and OPM have to say about it.

Image by Flickr user Jonathon Colman.

By: Christine Anderson
Former Public Policy Fellow, POGO

Christine Anderson At the time of publication, Christine Anderson was a Public Policy Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Whistleblower Protections

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Authors: Christine Anderson

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