First, we want to applaud the bravery of all who speak up for what they believe in, despite the risks they face in doing so. That said, we were deeply concerned by today's news in the Brattleboro Reformer that an active duty Marine is stepping forward to raise concerns about the war, presumably under the assumption that he will be "protected" under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act.
Tomorrow, dozens more may follow in his foot steps at a press call organized by Fenton Communications. We wondered whether these courageous individuals realize that getting whistleblower protection from retaliation is extremely difficult, made even more so by the Uniform Code of Military Justice which allows discipline for such catch-all violations as "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." Little has changed to improve the situation since David Hackworth's 1994 column "Blow the Whistle, Get the Ax."
Today's comment by Democratic Senator Jack Reed at a press conference was also not encouraging:
With respect to active duty personnel, soldiers have an obligation to serve. I think the province of public discourse is not something that they should be engaged in so free. I have not heard these comments. I heard a reflection of them. But let me make a general point: We expect our soldiers to follow the rules, follow the legitimate orders of their commanders. And if you feel a course of action is inappropriate, your choice is just getting out of the service, basically, if you can and making your comments as a civilian.
POGO and other whistleblower organizations regularly advise members of the military and government employees not to become publicly identified as whistleblowers. Their First Amendment right can be exercised more safely if they stay anonymous. The Department of Defense Inspector General investigates military retaliation cases, but only finds in favor of 17% of them. There are big hurdles to reversing retaliation -- among them, the need to establish a clear connection between the whistleblowing and the retaliation that occurs. Retaliation can come years down the road after the limelight has faded. Even "straight arrows" can suffer as the smallest infraction or appearance of an infraction is used against them. One of the few things that government bureaucracies do well is to hold grudges against their whistleblowers.
We don't want to discourage anyone in the government or the military from following their conscience, but we just want them to be aware of the reality of (the lack of) whistleblower protections and to be prepared to face the difficult road they may have to face.