Three years after Edward Snowden’s leaks, it appears that everyone has an opinion about him—traitor, hero, or somewhere in between. However, there is one undeniable fact surrounding Snowden’s circumstances that has been misreported by Congress and the Executive Branch far too many times: the Intelligence Community (IC) contractor would have had almost no protections had he come forward through proper channels.
Sure, Snowden could have gone to his supervisors and disclosed his concerns. However, had that supervisor retaliated against Snowden by firing him or demoting him, he would have had no protections because he was an IC contractor. In the absence of adequate protections, IC contractors have only two alternatives to almost certain retaliation: 1) remain silent observers of wrongdoing, or 2) make anonymous leaks.
This has not always been the case though. In fact, IC contractors enjoyed the gold standard of whistleblower protections for four years, between 2008 and 2012.
The NDAA for fiscal year 2008 contained temporary provisions that allowed all Department of Defense (DoD) contractors, including those at the National Security Agency (NSA), to enforce their whistleblower rights through district court jury trials. Additionally, in 2009, comprehensive whistleblower protections were enacted for all government contract employees paid with stimulus funds, including other IC agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. Contrary to predictions that contractor whistleblowers would flood the courts, only 25 cases were filed from 2008 through 2012 under the DoD contractor provision (including from the intelligence community).
This whistleblower shield was so successful in deterring contractor waste and abuse that the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency proposed a permanent expansion for all government contractors. In 2012, McCaskill introduced a whistleblower protection amendment for all government contractors that won bipartisan Senate approval in the fiscal year 2013 NDAA.
However, during that NDAA’s closing conference committee negotiations, whistleblower rights were extended only to contractors outside of the intelligence community. Preexisting rights for IC contractors were also removed, despite a proven track record that the law was working as intended and no evidence that the law had any adverse impacts on national security during its five-year lifespan.
Snowden’s disclosure to the media is a perfect example of why intelligence contractors need a mechanism to safely disclose suspected waste, fraud, and abuse. When Snowden was asked why he didn’t work within the system to blow the whistle, he said, “I had read the laws. I knew what would happen, I knew that there were no whistleblower protections that would protect me.”
The restoration of IC contractor whistleblower rights would help safeguard billions of taxpayer dollars in government contracts, grants, and reimbursements annually. To better protect taxpayer dollars, our country and Americans’ privacy, Congress must restore whistleblower protections for intelligence contractors and stop feeding the false narrative that such protections exist.
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