Tuesday, August 30, 2005


By William Fisher

Whistleblowers – those who go public with allegations of waste, fraud and abuse – continue to have a tough time, despite a law protecting them, and repeated assurances from the White House, many government agencies and congress that they maintain a policy of zero tolerance for retaliation.

The latest victim of apparent retaliation is Bunnatine H. “Bunny” Greenhouse,
the senior contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers, who objected – first, internally, then publicly – to a multi-billion dollar, no-bid contract with the Halliburton Company for work in Iraq.

Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, commander of the Army Corps, told Greenhouse she was being removed from the senior executive service, the top rank of civilian government employees, because of poor performance reviews.

But Greenhouse's attorney, Michael D. Kohn, has appealed the decision in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying the performance review cited by Strock to justify his action "was conducted by the very subjects" of Greenhouse's allegations, including the general.”

Greenhouse went public with her concerns over the volume of Iraq-related work given to Halliburton by the Corps without competition. Previously, her complaints within the agency having been ignored, she started giving interviews to national publications, and testified before a Democrat-sponsored Capitol Hill event on contracting in Iraq.

"I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to (Halliburton subsidiary) KBR represents the most blatant and improper abuse I have witnessed" in 20 years working on government contracts, Greenhouse said at the Democratic forum.

Greenhouse, the Army Corps' top procurement official since 1997, has developed a reputation among those in both government and industry as being a stickler for the rules.

That has led her critics to characterize her as a rule-bound bureaucrat. But those who support her see her as a defender of the public trust.

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, KBR had been hired to design a program to extinguish the oil fires the Pentagon believed retreating Iraqi troops would set when the invasion took place.

The government’s request for proposals to implement the KBR plan stipulated
that contractors had to have knowledge of KBR's plan. Consequently, KBR was the only bidder deemed eligible. The company was then hired to implement the program in a five-year, no-bid contract. Government contacting rules generally forbid contractors hired to prepare plans and budget estimates from bidding for the work that grows out of these plans.

Government contractors who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity said “contracts officers who insist on dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ can drive you crazy and delay your start-date”. But all agreed that contracting regulations “are there for a purpose – to protect the taxpayers’ money – and. In the end, you just accept delays as a cost of doing business.”

Greenhouse is only the latest in a lengthening string of whistleblowers whose cases have been rejected by the government.

Most prominent is Sibel Edmonds, who is waiting for the Supreme Court to review her charges that the behavior of some of her fellow employees at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) compromised national security. Lower courts turned down her case when the FBI claimed the ‘state secrets’ privilege, contending that disclosure of Edmonds’ evidence would reveal classified information.

Edmonds, a contract linguist for the bureau, was the subject of an investigation by the Department of Justice inspector general, who found that her charges were the major reason for her dismissal.

She organized and now leads the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC), which includes more than 50 former employees of national security agencies. The group has called on congress to permit whistleblowers to sue government retaliators in their personal and official capacities and to bring suit against agencies for failure to rectify misdeeds by employees or provide sufficient safeguards against whistleblower retaliation.

The government is increasingly using the ‘state secrets’ privilege to block whistleblowers’ suits. The State Secrets Privilege gives the federal government the ability to dismiss legal cases it claims would threaten foreign policy, military intelligence or national security.

It was used in 2002 in the case of Notra Trulock, who launched a defamation suit against Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwanese American computer scientist charged with stealing nuclear secrets for China from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

President George W. Bush said national security would be compromised if Trulock were allowed to seek damages from Lee. In a plea bargain with Lee -- who had been imprisoned for 278 days in solitary confinement -- Lee pled guilty to improper handling of classified data and was cleared of all charges relating to espionage.

The government again invoked the privilege when Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, sought to sue then Attorney General John Ashcroft for his role in taking Arar from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Syria against his will. He says he was first held incommunicado by U.S. immigration authorities, and eventually “rendered” to Syria, where he was imprisoned for close to a year and claims he was tortured. He was released without charges.

Former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey said in legal papers filed at the time that “Litigating [the] plaintiff's complaint would necessitate disclosure of classified information." The Arar case is currently being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barbara Olshansky, the assistant legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Arar, told IPS, that government lawyers “think they can do anything they want in the name of the global war on terrorism.”

Again, in August 2005, a Federal Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of a racial discrimination lawsuit against the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) based on the state secrets privilege.

Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA Operations Officer, claimed he was told he was “too big and black” to receive certain CIA assignments, and that CIA management placed expectations on him “far above those required of non-African-American Operations Officers.” He also contended he was retaliated against for using the CIA’s internal equal employment opportunity process.

The court ruled that Sterling cold not prove employment discrimination without exposing classified details of his covert employment.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the civil service support group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told IPS, “The stark absence of whistleblower rights in security, intelligence and military agencies is a growing vacuum that requires dedicated efforts to address."


By William Fisher

Central America and Uganda this week became the latest targets for right-wing leaders to blast HIV-AIDS prevention efforts that stray from the Bush Administration’s “abstinence-only” ideology.

One of the country’s most influential faith-based organizations, Focus on the Family (FOF), charged that a U.S. not-for-profit group, Advocates for Youth, “is asking its members and supporters to contact key Ugandan health and government officials and urge them to more fully embrace condoms and other forms of birth control.”

FOF quoted the Advocates for Youth website, which says, "There is no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs work," the states, adding that support must be given to "science-based HIV prevention strategies" rather than "ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs."

Peter Brandt, FOF’s senior director of government and public policy, said the group is flatly misstating reality in order to promote its condoms-first agenda.

"What the studies bear out is that abstinence works every time in preventing the spread of HIV and all other sexually transmitted diseases," he said. "Condoms aren't a solution to the problem of young people dying; they're a politically correct cause for those on the political left."

Focus on the Family, led by televangelist Rev. James Dobson, claimed that Uganda “once had the highest HIV-infection rates in the world -- 30 percent in some regions. But through the government's strong abstinence policy, rates have plummeted—from 21.2 percent among pregnant women in 1991 to 6.1 percent in 2001.”

It said the general population has also seen a decline to around 7 percent. “And that number figures to drop further, since studies show a third of Ugandan college students are keeping their abstinence pledges.”

In a related development, right-wing Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, demanded that the United States stop financing a Central American HIV-AIDS prevention program, run by Population Services International (PSI), a nonprofit group.

In a letter to President George W. Bush, Coburn -- a medical doctor -- complained about PSI’s “Noches Vives” and other programs. Noches means nights; Vives is a brand of condoms. Because most prostitutes in poor countries don't show up at local clinics to ask for condoms, PSI sponsors Noches Vives, sending aid workers to bars, brothels and other places where prostitutes congregate. They go from table to table, handing out condoms, sometimes using bananas as props, show people how to use them.

Coburn wrote that PSI’s funding is up for renewal, and PSI has applied for tens of millions more to continue the project," adding, “There is something seriously askew at USAID when the agency's response to a dehumanizing and abusive practice that exploits women and young girls is parties and games."

"It's a simple activity for largely illiterate people," said Michael Holscher, regional executive director for P.S.I. "We can't just stand up in a bar and say, 'AIDS will kill you.' With an interactive activity, we can hold their attentions, sometimes for as long as an hour."

Shortly after Mr. Coburn's letter, USAID cut off money for the program.

Rev. Tim Simpson of the newly-formed Christian Alliance, told IPS, "This is an absolutely tragic situation that is being compounded by the extremist ethics of Christian fundamentalists, who place sexual purity ahead of saving lives. The scourge of HIV/AIDS ought not be the occasion for trotting out the right wing's failed attempts at abstinence education. They don't seem to be nearly as concerned about Africans dying as they are about keeping Africans from having sex outside of marriage. But one infected prostitute can destroy the lives of hundreds of people in a very short period of time, so there is no question that the need is acute. It is time that the US government stops listening to groups like Focus on the Family and instead starts focusing on reality."

The Coburn action came on the heels of a lawsuit challenging the
government’s “anti-prostitution” policy, charging that it is an ”unconstitutional infringement of speech” that is undermining international efforts to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The NGO, DKT International, filed the suit in the District Court of the District of Columbia against USAID and its administrator, challenging the requirement that U.S. and foreign NGOs receiving USAID funding from adopt a policy “explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking.”

USAID adopted the rule requirement in June, as one of a number of policies advocated by the ‘pro-life’ religious right. Other Bush Administration initiatives include endorsement of the so-called Mexico Protocol, which forbids abortion counseling in family planning programs overseas.

U.S. observance of the protocol -- termed “the global gag rule” by family planning professionals -- was rescinded during the Clinton Administration but
re-authorized under President George W. Bush on his first day in office in January 2001.

Under the rule, foreign family planning agencies may not receive U.S. funds if, with their own funds, they counsel on or refer for abortion, advocate for more lenient abortion laws in their own country, or provide abortion services.

DKT’s president, Philip D. Harvey, said the anti-prostitution and sex trafficking policy “does a grave disservice to international AIDs-prevention programs and to those who carry them out. The policy does no good, and is clearly doing considerable harm.”

He told IPS,” I have found that non-governmental organizations around the world really despise this anti-prostitution pledge. In addition to making their work harder, it undermines their integrity, insults them really.”

DKT International is a non-profit organization based in Washington DC. It manages contraceptive social marketing programs for family planning and AIDS prevention in eleven countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. DKT’s programs currently serve just under 10 million couples, with an operating budget of $50 million.

“By coercing the speech of private parties”, he added, “The policy violates the First Amendment rights -- and the integrity -- of the organizations that are forced into compliance.”

As a result of refusing to adopt (and certify) USAID’s policy on prostitution, DKT lost USAID support for its AIDS-prevention work in Vietnam. Its lawsuit seeks injunctive relief to permit it to resume this work.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the anti-abortion Population Research Institute (PRI) is making plans to establish a pro-life office in Kabul “to assist Afghan women and families in their fight against the anti-natal agenda of UN agencies and anti-child NGOs.”

PRI said, “The recent legalization of abortion by Kabul's interim government was the catalyst…Abortion in Afghanistan is now legal up to the third month of pregnancy. Although, according to reports, three doctors must certify that the abortion is a medical necessity, such regulations have quickly degenerated in other countries to abortion on demand.”