By Jeremy Herb - 06/25/13 09:00 AM EDT
Danielle Brian knows all about government crackdowns on whistle-blowers. As executive director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) for two decades, Brian has experienced leak investigations firsthand when her organization has gotten hold of documents critical of the government.
Investigators literally came knocking on POGO’s doors in 1993, demanding to know the source of a draft report that showed waste in the Energy Department’s supercollider project.
It comes with the territory for Brian, who has made a career of exposing government misdeeds and trying to protect the whistle-blowers who reveal them.
Now whistle-blowers are back in the public spotlight as Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed documents on the NSA’s classified surveillance programs, has embarked on a worldwide odyssey that sounds like a thriller novel.
Brian said she’s been dismayed at how the NSA story has focused on Snowden rather than the constitutional questions raised by the secret government activities he revealed.
But as the Obama administration seeks to extradite and prosecute Snowden, Brian warned that another big part of the problem is going unaddressed: Congress and the intelligence community have failed to provide would-be whistle-blowers an outlet to disclose wrongdoing.
“They’re actually fulfilling their worst nightmares by making the media the only outlet,” Brian said. “I wish the policymakers would recognize that this should be the alarm bell that we will continue to have more leaks like this because there aren’t safe and meaningful channels of disclosing.”
The Snowden saga is only the latest in a long chapter of government disclosures that have occurred during Brian’s career at the government watchdog.
Brian, 50, has been working at POGO for nearly a quarter century, including the last 20 as its executive director. She had no idea what was in store when she was told about a POGO internship while a sophomore at Smith College.
At the time, she said, she was worried about whether working at a group founded by Pentagon whistle-blowers might one day harm her own chances of getting a security clearance. But she took the internship and then returned after college and worked there for four years as a researcher.
Brian left POGO to get a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University with plans to become an arms negotiator. Upon graduating, she took a job with the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus — back when congressional caucuses had staffs — but eventually decided the political life on Capitol Hill wasn’t for her.
Following a short stint as an investigative journalist working for Geraldo Rivera, Brian wound up right back where she started at POGO.
When she was hired to be the group’s executive director in 1993, POGO was down to two employees, Brian and Keith Rutter.
Two decades later, POGO has grown to 20 full-time employees, and Rutter is still sitting in the cubicle beside hers as the organization’s chief operating officer.
“I always joke that POGO is sort of like ‘Hotel California,’ ” Brian said, referencing the hit song by the Eagles. “We’re definitely a place that you never really leave when you come here.”
Brian led the organization’s growth through a mix of ramped-up fundraising from foundations and the ease for whistle-blowers to send information anonymously through the Internet.
She described POGO as a “hybrid” organization that identifies problems with investigative journalism techniques, makes policy recommendations to fix the problems it’s exposing and advocates on behalf of those exposing the wrongdoing.
The group has worked on everything from contractor fraud to energy companies underpaying the government for royalties.
She said POGO only takes on about 1 percent of the cases that are sent in, as it targets systemic problems rather than individual anomalies.
Brian stressed that her organization is nonpartisan and she is a registered independent. But she said she always votes.
“I’m not one of these people who thinks that to be independent means you shouldn’t vote. I think that’s insane,” Brian said.
As a “student of government,” Brian has seen plenty of government wrongdoing, whether it’s incompetence or criminal behavior. But she doesn’t get discouraged, she said, even if the same problems pop up again and again.
“I see the government as filled with lots of really good people who are in very difficult circumstances sometimes. Institutions don’t welcome dissent, any institution,” Brian said.
“And I think all of us here believe in the ideal of a government that is more effective, accountable, open and honest,” she said. “The one kind of person you will not find here is a cynic.”
POGO has advocated for enhanced whistle-blower protections in recent years, only to see carve-outs for the intelligence community included in the laws that pass. The Obama administration has also prosecuted more leakers than all previous administrations combined.
In the wake of the Snowden case, like the WikiLeaks disclosures before it, Brian said her biggest concern is overreaction against whistle-blowers.
“Thank God some of the legislation that was being proposed didn’t go anywhere because that would just really set things back,” she said of the congressional response to the WikiLeaks case. “There is a hysteria. Sometimes it’s not a bad thing that there’s gridlock because sometimes it’s better that they not do anything at all.”
Brian argued that lawmakers should instead move toward providing more protections for those in the intelligence community because that would encourage whistle-blowers to go through official channels, rather than through the press.
She said POGO will continue to fight for whistle-blowers in the months ahead and will be an outlet for those who want to expose wrongdoing.
In the case of the Panetta inspector general report, for instance, Brian said any threats to try and locate POGO’s source would fall on deaf ears.
“I’m not surprised that they would say that, and good luck to them, because we’re certainly not going to cooperate,” she said.