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National security vs. whistle-blowing

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The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 and the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 set out mechanisms for employees to report wrongdoing if they "reasonably believe" there's misconduct. Most whistle-blowers can go to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and the US Office of Special Counsel. Those in the intelligence communities are supposed to go to their agencies' inspectors general or members of the congressional Intelligence Committees.

"Congress needs access to not only the information an agency head is willing to release, but things from the middle and the bottom, and that's whistle-blowing," says Louis Fisher, a senior specialist in the separation of powers at the Congressional Research Service. "In a time of war and emergencies, it's particularly important because when you concentrate power, the chance of abuse and mistakes increases."

Yet some analysts believe it's vital that the executive branch have the prerogative to keep some information secret. "There are some ... programs that are so sensitive that distribution of information should be very limited. It's vital to our national security," says Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "But I also believe there should be some oversight."

In 1999, a federal court ruled that employees can be protected from retaliation only if there is irrefutable evidence of wrongdoing - a standard that government accountability experts say is extremely difficult to meet. Prior to the ruling, 36 percent of whistle-blower cases that went to the MSPB won on the merits, according to the Government Accountability Project, another nonprofit government watchdog group. Since that 1999 ruling, only 7 percent have prevailed. Court rulings have also narrowed the scope of who qualifies as a whistle-blower and limited the MSPB's ability to remedy certain forms of retaliation.

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