Congress eyes tricky question of blowing the whistle in wartime.
Dissent often carries a price in official Washington, especially in the war years of the Bush presidency.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of insiders alleging wrongdoing in government - either through whistle-blower channels or directly to the press - has surged, as have reprisals against them.
That's the message from this week's congressional hearing on protections for national security whistle-blowers - the first in more than a decade. "The system is broken," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, who chaired the House Government Affairs subcommittee hearing.
Disclosures of flawed prewar intelligence, secret prisons and prisoner abuse, and warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency have launched a debate on the conduct of the war on terror within Congress and the American public. Critics say some of those disclosures also compromised national security.
"At the Central Intelligence Agency, we are more than holding our own in the global war on terrorism, but we are at risk of losing a key battle: the battle to protect our classified information," wrote CIA director Porter Goss in The New York Times last Friday.
The struggle over dissent in dangerous times is not confined to national security matters, however. It appears to be settling deeper into the federal bureaucracy, where government scientists and even analysts at the scholarly Congressional Research Service - who are not actually blowing any whistles but who are staking out positions that deviate from the administration's - report efforts to control their contact with the press and public.
If whistle-blowers and others "do not see an option for dissent within the system, then the system is in bad shape," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "Secrecy has become a growth industry.... It makes it harder for ordinary citizens ... to ask questions ... and to hold officials accountable."
The lips-stay-sealed climate is felt most acutely, at least these days, by those in national-security fields. Indeed, a Justice Department investigation is under way to discover who divulged the existence of warrantless eavesdropping by the NSA - a probe that may yield criminal charges against the individuals responsible.