Censoring the Whistle
By Bill Fisher
Republicans on cable news have been hyperventilating about the White House leaking whistleblower information that makes the president look good before the election. Maybe so, maybe no.
But whistleblowers’ information can work two ways. More often than not, news that ought to be disclosed is suppressed by people who worry that it will make the president look bad. And those self-appointed censors — including high-ranking military officers – need to be held accountable for spewing a barf of lies among the American people.
The practice is known as Propaganda. No, not Public Diplomacy. Propaganda – in which despite the Obama Administration’s pledge of openness and accountability – the public is fed a menu of lies and half-truths designed to morph a bad war into a slightly less bad war, or boast about “victories” in what is becoming a “good war.”
Such was the case when the American general who led a NATO training mission in Afghanistan opposed an investigation into corruption and “Auschwitz-like” conditions at a US-funded hospital in Kabul for political reasons, US military officers told the House of Representatives Committee on Government Oversight last week.
According to an active-duty witness, a three-star general, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, who headed the training mission in Afghanistan, forced him to do a 180 on a request for an inspector general’s investigation into the Dawood Khan national military hospital in Kabul.
This signature hospital, funded by the US and dedicated to caring for wounded Afghan soldiers, is entirely run by and supposedly for the Afghan military.
When your members of Congress return from Afghanistan and tell you we’re winning the war, losing it, or doing something in the middle, the chances are they aren’t getting to see much of the war at all. What they’re seeing is what senior officers are describing as a “dog and pony show.”
In the case of the Dawood Khan Hospital, your Congress people – and senior officers assigned to inspect the facility – will get to see the part of the hospital reserved for the favoring eyes of VIPs.
But what was actually seen in an inspection by a retired Air Force surgeon and other officers will curl your toes.
For example, a witness before the House Committee on Oversight, retired colonel Schuyler Geller, a command surgeon attached to the training mission, charged poor patient treatment and corruption. He also confirmed that Gen. Caldwell rejected an inspector general’s investigation and had partisan motives in postponing any investigation until after the 2010 election.
Geller told the hearing that when military officials came to visit the hospital they got a “dog and pony show” that covered up the abuse.
What was actually seen by those who ducked the dog and pony show was described by another high-ranking officer, Col. Mark F. Fassl.
At the hearing, he and other officers described the extent of human suffering at the hospital, where the lack of care forced families of soldiers to empty “vats of blood draining from their wounds.”
When asked to describe the scene at the hospital, Fassl said i”t lacked basic facilities.” Hygiene was “poor and the hospital had no soap, no heat and no means to boil water”, he said.
“There were open vats of blood draining out of soldiers’ wounds, there were feces on the floor. There were many family members taking care of their loved ones. The family members were emptying these vats of blood to help their patients out.”
Fassl said: “When I think about what we were trying to do in Afghanistan, which is build the army and police corps, how could we allow this type of suffering to go on when we should be showing the Afghan citizens that their soldiers matter?”
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Afghan soldiers often died from neglect or lack of food as some Afghan doctors and nurses demanded bribes for food.” Fassl said he had expected Caldwell to insist on going to the hospital to find out what was going on.
The Committee staff sad Caldwell “eventually agreed to request a limited investigation,” but said it “would not mention the Auschwitz-like conditions at the national military hospital.” Instead it concentrated on the corruption built into the acquisition and diverted deliveries of hospital equipment and supplies, including supplies of medications. Millions of dollars in medications were diverted to Pakistan and elsewhere, creating acute shortages in the Dawood Hospital and driving up the price in other locations.
Congressional Committee officials said the Inspector General has now opened two investigations in response to complaints over the response of Caldwell and a deputy, now Major General Gary Patton.
It said one concerns the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which stops commanders from restricting subordinates’ communication with the inspector general. The second involves allegations of reprisal from a complainant who alleged that Caldwell and Patton cited partisan reasons for requesting postponement of an investigation until after the 2010 elections.
But other witnesses testified that the committee “should be considering a broader issue than conditions at the hospital. What this hearing should be about are attempts to over-control the message. It is about some leadership that puts the best foot forward and relies on the hard built reputation earned by the military to soften any belief that there is a need to see the other foot.”
The full, stated mission of the NWC is:
The National Whistleblowers Center (NWC) is an advocacy organization with a 23-year history of protecting the right of individuals to speak out about wrongdoing in the workplace without fear of retaliation. Since 1988, NWC has supported whistleblowers in the courts and before Congress, achieving victories for environmental protection, nuclear safety, government ethics and corporate accountability.
NWC also sponsors several educational and assistance programs, including an online resource center on whistleblower rights, a speaker’s bureau of national experts and former whistleblowers, and a national attorney referral service run by the NWC’s sister group the National Whistleblower Legal Defense and Education Fund (NWLDEF). The National Whistleblowers Center is a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Washington, DC.
Just ponder for a moment all the disclosures that would not have been possible without the help of whistleblowers, who risk their jobs and even their liberty to report on corruption, fraud, and waste.
- The Forensic Justice Project (FJP): After leading a successful six year campaign to reform the FBI’s Forensic Crime Lab, the Center’s Forensic Justice Project has taken on a review of misconduct in crime labs nationwide. The cases under review have impacted many potential wrongful convictions, resulted in the review of thousands of cases, and given freedom to wrongfully convicted defendants. In addition to reviewing misconduct at state crime labs, the FJP continues to monitor and expose problems within the FBI and FBI crime lab.
- Winning reinstatement for the highest ranking nuclear whistleblower;
- Collecting millions of dollars in damages on behalf of whistleblowers;
- Using the Freedom of Information Act (United States) to force government agencies to release hundreds of thousands of pages of information documenting government misconduct;
- Exposing misconduct at the World Trade Center and the 9/11 crime scenes, including theft by FBI agents and the mishandling of evidence;
- Requiring the FBI to create whistleblower protection for FBI agents for the first time in U.S. history;
- Forcing the FBI to accredit its crime lab;
- Forcing the United States Attorney General to withdraw gag orders on government employees who desired to expose ethical violations to Members of Congress;
- Successfully worked with Congress to ensure passage of critical whistleblower protection laws, such as the No-FEAR Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Whistleblower Protection Act, and the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act;
- Forcing President Bush to withdraw his nomination for head of enforcement at the United States Environmental Protection Agency due to former retaliation against whistleblowers;
- Preventing federal agencies from gagging employee speech critical of agency policies;
- Banning “hush money” payments for all environmental and nuclear federal safety cases;
- Exposing the vulnerabilities of U.S. nuclear power plants to airborne terrorist attacks and forcing reforms in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission;
- Ensuring that military whistleblowers are informed of their rights by the Department of Defense;
- Establishing numerous legal precedents strengthening whistleblower protections for public and private sector employees, including expanding the scope of protected whistleblower speech, enjoining government regulations which restricted whistleblowing, and expanding the use of the Privacy Act to prevent the government from smearing its critics.
Over recent years, a number of whistleblowers have been raised into the pantheon of the courageous because of the ouitstanding contributions to transparency they have made. Some of these include:
- Mrs. Bunnantine (Bunny) Greenhouse, former chief contracting officer of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, testified in June 2005 before a Democratic Party public committee. Her testimony included allegations against Halliburton of instances of waste, fraud and other abuses with regards to its operations in the Iraq War. After standing up and “blowing the whistle,” she was demoted and removed from her position as the chief civilian contracting authority of the Corps. In July 2011, she won close to $1 million in full restitution of lost wages, compensatory damages, and attorney fees.
- Jane Turner. In 1999, former FBI special agent Jane Turner brought to the attention of her management team serious misconduct concerning failures to investigate and prosecute crimes against children in Indian Country and in the Minot, North Dakota community. Turner also reported on misconduct related to the potential criminal theft of property from the 9/11 Ground Zero crime scene in New York City by Minneapolis FBI personnel. Although she was considered one of the best agents working in Indian Country, Turner’s twenty-five year career with the FBI was brought to a halt when she was forced from service as retaliation for what FBI management termed as “tarnishing” the image of the FBI.
- Dr. Frederic Whitehurst. Dr. Whitehurst is the Executive Director of the NWC’s Forensic Justice Project. Dr. Whitehurst received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Duke University, a J.D. from Georgetown University. He joined the FBI in 1982 and served as a Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI crime lab from 1986-98. He retired after winning the first-ever whistleblower case against the FBI.
- Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo was a senior policy analyst for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She founded two employee-rights groups, EPA Employees Against Racial Discrimination and the No FEAR coalition. Through her leadership, the No FEAR Coalition, working closely with Representative James Sensenbrenner, organized a successful grass-roots campaign and obtained overwhelming Congressional support for the “Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act.” The Act was signed into law by President Bush in 2002.
- Murphy v. IRS: In Murphy v. IRS, whistleblower Marrita Murphy (represented by David K. Colapinto, general counsel for the National Whistleblower Center) challenged the constitutionality of taxing compensatory damages in civil rights/whistleblower cases.
In August, 2006, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of Ms. Murphy, and declared unconstitutional a special tax Congress had passed in 1996, which targeted civil rights victims who received compensation for emotional distress damages. However, on July 3, 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed itself on the case, holding that the IRS can tax damage awards based solely on compensating victims who suffer emotional injuries.
And then, of course, there are the three largest whistleblowers in US history: Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame; Bradley Manning, whose trial will take place some day in the future; and Daniel Ellsberg from the Vietnam era.
What Manning’s egregious treatment was and what fate is likely for Manning and Assange, at one level, has simply become a Washington DC parlor game. But at another level, the outcome of this litigation will tell us a lot about the future of our country.
Hopefully, in the same positive way that the Washington Post’s Dana Priest’s and Anne Hull’s scathing expose of conditions at The Walter Reed Medical Center resulted in maximum news coverage world-wide and ignited the political will to make substantial changes for the better. And earned the authors Pulitzer prizes.
Maybe we’ll get lucky twice.