Senators fear plan will muzzle whistleblowers

A bipartisan pair of senators fear that new Obama administration intelligence policies could crack down too hard on whistleblowers.

In a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Thursday, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) warned that policy changes made after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks raised serious problems and could even violate the Constitution.

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“If whistleblower communications with Inspectors General or with Congress are routinely monitored and conveyed to agency leadership, it would defeat the ability to make protected disclosures confidentially, which is especially important in an intelligence community context,” the pair wrote.

“Sometimes confidentiality is the best protection a whistleblower has.”

In addition to expressing their concerns, the two senators asked whether or not the spy chief believed that he had the authority to monitor staffers in Congress who have security clearances. If so, that could “potentially violate fundamental privileges of the Legislative Branch guaranteed in the Constitution,” they claimed.

In response to the Snowden leaks last year, federal intelligence agencies have taken a new look at their security clearance processes and begun continually evaluating staffers’ behavior. That type of monitoring should be able to prevent another worker from following in Snowden’s footsteps or using their position to spy for a government like China or Russia, officials hope.

However, the two senators worry the new policy could have the opposite effect.

If employees feared that passing along their concerns “means putting a target on their backs for retaliation, they will be intimidated into silence,” they wrote.

“The failure to provide such protected alternatives could result in whistleblowers choosing to make unprotected disclosures in public forums, with potential negative consequences for national security.”

Critics of Snowden have feared that his leaks have helped terrorists and foreign governments looking to thwart American efforts overseas.  

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