WASHINGTON — A Senate committee yesterday unanimously approved legislation to protect federal employees from being punished for blowing the whistle on waste and corruption.
The bill, S. 372, allows many government workers to take reprisal complaints to a federal court where a jury can hear the case. For employees at U.S. intelligence agencies who have access to the nation's deepest secrets, it creates a special board with members appointed by the president to examine retaliation claims.
Under the current system, whistleblowers at most government agencies can challenge adverse administrative decisions outside their agencies. But not only are these appeal rights too narrow, whistleblower advocates say, intelligence-agency employees aren't covered because of the sensitive nature of their jobs.
The White House, which was closely involved in the crafting of the Senate bill, called the vote by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee "a bipartisan breakthrough for whistleblower rights."
Public interest groups hailed passage of the bill even as they push for broader reforms.
"This is a giant step on the road to the promised land for federal whistleblowers," said Tom Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington.
But the National Whistleblower Center, an advocacy group, called on lawmakers to pass a more aggressive version of the bill being considered by the House of Representatives that applies the jury-trial provisions to all employees, including those at intelligence agencies.
During the 2008 campaign, President Barack Obama said he backed protecting federal whistleblowers "under the framework" of the House bill.
"We expect President Obama to fulfill this vital nonpartisan campaign promise," said Stephen Kohn, the center's executive director.
There are concerns among intelligence and law enforcement agency officials that allowing national security employees to have their cases heard in court could lead to classified information about critical programs being improperly disclosed.
They also say they worry about a spike in frivolous lawsuits filed by disgruntled or poor performing employees who use the new protections as a way to stave off legitimate disciplinary actions.
According to the Senate bill, U.S. intelligence agencies include the FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, said yesterday that whistleblower-advocacy groups would continue to press lawmakers to cover all employees.
The proposed review board for intelligence worker complaints doesn't provide the legal rights these employees deserve, she said.
Yet the Senate has long resisted giving federal court access to any government whistleblowers, Brian said, and the significance of the committee's vote shouldn't be taken for granted.
"This is monumental," she said.