Last week, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to enhance Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) whistleblower protections in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The letter questioned how much the DOJ has done to implement recommendations from its own April 2014 report about its regulations protecting FBI whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers are key to preventing waste, fraud, and abuse in government, but holes in the FBI’s protections leave employees vulnerable, making it less likely that employees will step forward with important disclosures.
One of the 2014 report’s key recommendations was that DOJ should expand the FBI’s whistleblower regulation so FBI employees can make protected disclosures to a wider group of government officials.
A year later, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that many FBI whistleblowers were not receiving protections because the regulation only protected disclosures to a narrow group of officials. GAO’s report found that the DOJ terminated more than 25 percent of FBI whistleblower retaliation cases because employees disclosed to persons unauthorized to receive disclosures.
Despite these two reports, the DOJ did not change its regulation to protect disclosures to a larger group of officials until Congress passed a new law at the end of last year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2016 (H.R. 5790) was passed in December 2016. The bill, a modified version of one that Senators Grassley and Leahy had introduced earlier in the Senate, extended FBI whistleblower protections to include disclosures of wrongdoing to supervisors and officers within their chain of command, the Office of Special Counsel, and Members of Congress.
However, the FBI did not update its training materials for employees to reflect the change until eight months later in August 2017.
Senators Grassley and Leahy want more transparency and reporting from the FBI on the agency’s efforts to update whistleblower protections. Proposed changes like providing time estimates for final decisions on complaints, establishing set criteria to vet witnesses for credibility, and publicizing decisions on past reprisal hearings so whistleblowers have case precedent to draw from if they face reprisal have not been implemented. In the letter, the Senators requested that the FBI send information on the status of several unimplemented changes by October 4, 2017.
Whistleblower protections are especially important at a time when the FBI faces important, high-profile questions such as how and to what extent Russia interfered in the 2016 election or whether former Director James Comey mishandled the investigation into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server. The answers to these and many other issues the FBI investigates could come from whistleblowers. It is crucial the FBI foster an environment where individuals are encouraged to come forward and are protected if they do. Strengthening whistleblower protections is key to maintaining FBI independence and integrity.
If you are an FBI or federal government employee looking for more information on the protections available to you, check out the Project On Government Oversight’s recently unveiled “Know Your Rights” resource.