Let's protect the whistle-blower

By

MAJOR Peter Cole was one of our nation's most promising Army officers. A West Point graduate, he had served his country well for nearly six years. Then his shining career came to a premature, abrupt end because he refused to keep silent about wrongdoing in the military. Shortly after Major Cole received a prestigious appointment to West Point, a seasoned military man took him aside and offered a few words of sage advice: ``Peter, keep your mouth shut for 20 years and you will wear stars.'' But when Cole heard reports of widespread drug abuse at West Point and mysterious million-dollar ``losses'' of Army equipment in Germany, he made the biggest mistake of his life - he didn't take that advice. He didn't keep his mouth shut. Instead, he reported what he had heard to his superiors, and they thanked him by ruining his career.

While at West Point in 1969, Cole reported drug abuse among cadets to the Army Criminal Investigation Division and to the officer chain of command. Instead of probing the reports, Cole's superiors began investigating him for ``honor code violations,'' and ordered Cole confined to the ``psych ward'' at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. Cole was not given a hearing, access to a lawyer, or any other ``due process'' protection before confinement. In fact, Cole said that while at Walter Reed, he saw other officer-``patients,'' who claimed they were given electric shock treatments and drug injections against their will.

Sounds like a scene from the ``Gulag Archipelago,'' doesn't it? But it happens to whistle-blowers in the United States, not just the Soviet Union, along with other forms of reprisal like negative performance reports, demotions or denial of promotions, even anonymous phone threats. It also happened to Navy officer Michael Tufariello, who found himself in a mental ward after protesting payments to Navy reservists for work never done. Cole, now a US Army National Guard reservist, and Officer Tufariello, now retired from the Navy, should have been considered heroes. Instead, they were branded traitors.

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Some whistle-blowers are federal employees, others work for private companies, but many are men and women who serve in our nation's armed forces. Federal and private sector employees have the benefit of established grievance procedures; military personnel are not so lucky. They live and work in an atmosphere where discipline, conformity, and unquestioning obedience to the orders of superiors are prized above all else. True, these values are the key to an effective defense in wartime. But they can also be misused by some to muzzle or punish whistle-blowers who reveal billion-dollar waste, fraud, and shoddy weapons that undermine our nation's security and jeopardize soldiers' lives.

I have introduced legislation to change that, giving military personnel the same due process rights already enjoyed by most Americans. H.R. 1394, the ``Whistleblower Protection Act,'' protects soldiers who report wrongdoing to the Inspector General (IG) or members of Congress from reprisal and requires the IG to promptly investigate reports of wrongdoing and retaliation. It also allows a whistle-blower who is dissatisfied with the IG's report to petition the Board of Correction of Military Records for a hearing. The bill also allows a whistleblower to appeal the Board's decision to a US Court of Appeals. A House Armed Services Subcommittee recently held hearings on the bill, and House action is expected early next year.

Why is it that extraordinary steps are needed to protect the whistle-blower? Shouldn't people who are already doing what's right be protected - even rewarded? Ideally they should. But the truth is that the whistle-blower in any industry - but particularly in the military - is the proverbial ``boat rocker,'' the bearer of bad news. And sometimes that news can embarrass or even threaten the careers of their superiors.

Under current law, military whistle-blowers have virtually no due-process rights to independent legal counsel, hearings, or appeals to civilian courts. They cannot join unions or engage in collective bargaining to air their grievances. They are, in effect, second-class citizens in the eyes of the law. Their complaints, if formally heard, are reviewed by other military personnel, whose independence and judgment are often compromised by devotion to military discipline and the status quo. Hence, they are literally at the mercy of their superiors - some of whom may stand to gain the most if soldiers who know too much are stifled.

Without the invaluable disclosures of whistle-blowers, the American people and the Congress would never discover the needless, shameful waste of their hard-earned tax dollars. If we are truly serious about maintaining a lean, mean fighting force, we must protect the military men and women who blow the whistle on waste and corruption.

Rep. Barbara Boxer (D) of California is a member of the House Budget and Armed Services Committees and the Congressional Military Reform Caucus.

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