Protections erode for those who allege governmental wrongdoing - especially if going public risks state secrets.
Former intelligence officer Russ Tice wants to tell Congress about what he believes were illegal actions undertaken by the National Security Agency in its highly sophisticated eavesdropping programs.
But he can't. He's been warned by the NSA that the information is so highly classified that even members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees - who are charged with overseeing the work of the intelligence community - don't have clearance to hear about them. If Mr. Tice talks at the hearings early next month, he could face criminal prosecution.
Tice is one of an increasing number of whistle-blowers in the national security realm who have come forth and found themselves in a bind.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of government employees coming forward to report allegations of wrongdoing within the government increased 46 percent in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And surveys of government employees, particularly in the intelligence agencies and the Defense Department, show the terror attacks prompted an increase in concern about the competency of bureaucracy at all levels as well as a decline in morale.
So more employees have come forward. But new secrecy regulations and a series of judicial rulings have threatened the limited legal protections that are supposed to prevent retaliation against such whistle-blowers - even if they believe what they want to report is essential to national security.
"The laws on the books give the impression that people have somewhere to turn and they'll be protected, but they don't," says Beth Daley, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit organization dedicated to government accountability. "There really isn't a functioning whistle-blower protection program right now."