Ho Hum, Another Whistleblower…Will Anything Change?

Another whistleblower makes the news today, as it was revealed that a White House official who once led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming. A senior associate in the Climate Change Science Program, Rick Plitz, resigned earlier this year and has now released the damning documents. Has anything changed much since 2002, The Year of the Whistleblower, when Cynthia Cooper (WorldCom), Coleen Rowley (the FBI), and Sherron Watkins (Enron) told their stories to the world? While Plitz may not reach the pinnacle of fame the others did, perhaps its because the stories of the truth being suppressed are all too common these days.

Today, the issue is global warming. Scientists claim that there is a link between the emission of greenhouse gases and a rise in the Earth’s temperature, which causes climate changes, leading to “changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans.” The Administration is not so sure about that, although ironically enough, on the “Global Warming Kids Site,” courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), kids are being told that “many of the world’s leading climate scientists think that things people do are helping to make the Earth warmer.”

But those leading climate scientists were no match for Philip Cooney’s red pen. Cooney, who left his job as a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry, to become the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues. Cooney, a lawyer with no scientific training, took the submitted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors had approved, and made changes that played down links between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. (See New York Times article.)

In March, Rick Piltz had had enough of such alterations that fly in the face of established science, and resigned his position. He is now being represented by the Government Accountability Project (GAP). On June 1, he sent a memo to his former colleagues discussing exactly why he had chosen to resign. As Piltz sees it,

The administration will not accept and use appropriately the findings and conclusions of the national and international climate assessments, and it hinders and even prevents the climate science program from doing so….Each administration has a policy position on climate change. But I have not seen a situation like the one that has developed under this administration during the past four years, in which politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program.

(See Piltz June 1 memo.) According to Piltz, changing the text of scientific documents isn’t just a matter of pushing one policy over another, as it threatens to taint the government’s $1.8 billion-a-year effort to clarify the causes and consequences of climate change. (See New York Times article.)

The Administration is now scrambling to paint Piltz’s revelations as “business as usual” at government agencies, which unfortunately, it may very well be in many cases. The President’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, claims the changes were just part of the “interagency review process,” with more than a dozen agencies involved in preparing the documents, and not a deliberate suppression of the truth. (See Press Briefing of June 8.) Piltz challenges that assertion, contending that Cooney “played a central role, including having final review and signoff authority,” and that many of Cooney’s changes were aimed “at creating an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty” about climate change and its impact, contrary to the views of professionals. (See Washington Post article.) And other scientists reacted angrily as well: It’s “par for the course from the administration, in terms of interfering with science for political ends,” said Luke Warren of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has criticized the Bush administration’s science policies. (See USA Today article.)

It’s too soon to see how this will all play out: will Piltz be acclaimed as an environmental hero, or political hack? Will he be hauled before Congress to testify, or become a pawn in partisan warfare? Do enough people care about global warming that they find his statements alarming? Or is the real story the suppression of any information that doesn’t fully correlate with the Administration’s agenda? And will he regret the day he spoke up, instead of quietly accepting another job with a university or corporation (or lobbying firm)? Perhaps all this will be true eventually — that seems to be the experience of most whistleblowers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Coleen Rowley last week, who continues to speak out and may even run for Congress in her suburban Minneapolis district. (See Rowley’s memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller to refresh your recollection of her efforts.) She doesn’t appear to have any regrets; neither do Sherron Watkins of Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Yet most whistleblowers end up being harassed, fired (often on trumped-up charges), and blackballed from their professions. The financial and emotional strain can snowball further, breaking up marriages, draining bank accounts, and taking a toll on physical and mental health. (See The Whistle-Blower’s Dilemma.) Just earlier this week, it was reported that a whistleblower, Tommy Hook, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was severely beaten, just before he was slated to testify about accounting irregularities at the lab. (See New York Times story, and MSNBC article (includes Hook’s horrific picture.)

Anyone who is thinking about blowing the whistle on their employer, whether a private corporation, or the U.S. government, needs to know their legal rights. We have recently added to our website a section on whistleblowing and retaliation. While not yet fully complete, it already has general information, and specific pages for environmental whistleblowers, corporate whistleblowers, and government fraud. Whistleblowers also need attorneys, and it helps to have the support of fine organizations such as the Government Accountability Project, the National Whistleblower Center, Taxpayers Against Fraud, and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Watching vicious excoriations over and over (not to mention grotesque physical abuse) is hardly conducive to encouraging others to speak out, especially when the highest levels of government are involved. Whether or not whistleblowers live to regret their actions (and Tommy Hook must really be wondering about that as he recovers), it’s absolutely essential that they continue to speak out, and that every available legal protection is at their disposal when they do.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.