"She's Punished for Doing Right"

Through his longtime role as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has emerged as the Congress's foremost champion of government oversight in general, and abuses of power at the FBI in particular. Both Jane Turner and Sibel Edmonds say he played a vital role in bringing their stories to public attention. He co-authored the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, and last year he introduced a far-ranging FBI Reform Act that included enhanced protections for whistleblowers. The bill failed to make it out of committee.

City Pages spoke to Grassley by phone last week.


City Pages: First, the most obvious question posed by these FBI whistleblower cases, and that is, why does the FBI get to flout its critics so openly and for such a long time?

Chuck Grassley: To put it in context, and maybe it'd be easy for me to convince myself that the FBI is a lot worse than other bureaucracies along this line, but I think we have an institutional disease within government, an attitude that's very negative toward whistleblowers, because there is always a great deal of peer pressure to go along to get along. I don't say that because I want to say it. I'm just saying that we're dealing with a problem that isn't only an FBI problem. It's other places as well, and it may be just a little worse in the FBI because they've had a longer leash from Congress in the 70 years they've existed than a lot of agencies of government. I wouldn't want to say it's worse for sure, but you've got a major problem to deal with.

With the FBI, I think it's related to the fact they've had a certain amount of respect from Congress, less oversight--a little bit like the people with all the stripes and silver stars and military uniforms coming before the Senate or House Armed Services Committee, who maybe don't get asked all the hard questions that they should because of too much deference. I think that's the conclusion I've come to.

Another institutional problem is here in the Congress, that maybe our committees don't do as much oversight as they ought to.

CP: I understand your point about the glacial pace of bureaucracies, but why is the rest of the government so slow to apply political pressure to the FBI?

Grassley: Well, [one factor is] Congress not doing its job. The attitude in government of always shooting the messenger instead of listening to the message--trying to ignore it, diverting attention from it. Typical bureaucratic stonewalling. And not enough push from Congress to--well, I don't just want to blame Congress. There's an attitude here in the executive branch of government that I think gives credence to the view that whistleblowers can't be trusted. I'm just the opposite. Maybe I trust them too much. But I want to encourage whistleblowing in order to help me do my job of congressional oversight.

CP: Can you make sense of why the claims of Sibel Edmonds can't be discussed in Congress or the courts even though the substance of her allegations has been on the front page of the New York Times?

Grassley: The inconsistency, and the irony, of their classifying what they briefed us on two years ago--I only see it as an effort for further cover-up, with no justification. And I've said this in open hearing before the FBI and our Judiciary Committee within the last three or four months.

CP: You've provided a lot of help to Jane Turner as well as the other whistleblowers.

Grassley: Jane Turner's case, what she did was so obvious that she should not have had any retaliation whatsoever, because she was doing her job. She has a duty and an obligation to report such misconduct as people stealing things. She got continued hostility, and in that case the FBI actually initiated termination.

She was just doing her job. The grandfather of all whistleblowers, Ernie Fitzgerald, said that people are punished for telling the truth. She was punished for doing her job. If she had tried to cover up what she knew other people had stolen, she could have been subject to punishment as well. Yet she's punished for doing right.

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