"Thomas M. Tamm was entrusted with some of the government's most important secrets. He had a Sensitive Compartmented Information security clearance, a level above Top Secret. Government agents had probed Tamm's background, his friends and associates, and determined him trustworthy.
It's easy to see why: he comes from a family of high-ranking FBI officials. During his childhood, he played under the desk of J. Edgar Hoover, and as an adult, he enjoyed a long and successful career as a prosecutor. Now gray-haired, 56 and fighting a paunch, Tamm prides himself on his personal rectitude. He has what his 23-year-old son, Terry, calls a "passion for justice." For that reason, there was one secret he says he felt duty-bound to reveal.
In the spring of 2004, Tamm had just finished a yearlong stint at a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies -- a unit so sensitive that employees are required to put their hands through a biometric scanner to check their fingerprints upon entering. While there, Tamm stumbled upon the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency program that seemed to be eavesdropping on U.S. citizens. The unit had special rules that appeared to be hiding the NSA activities from a panel of federal judges who are required to approve such surveillance. When Tamm started asking questions, his supervisors told him to drop the subject. He says one volunteered that "the program" (as it was commonly called within the office) was "probably illegal."
Tamm agonized over what to do. He tried to raise the issue with a former colleague working for the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the friend, wary of discussing what sounded like government secrets, shut down their conversation. For weeks, Tamm couldn't sleep. The idea of lawlessness at the Justice Department angered him. Finally, one day during his lunch hour, Tamm ducked into a subway station near the U.S. District Courthouse on Pennsylvania Avenue. He headed for a pair of adjoining pay phones partially concealed by large, illuminated Metro maps. Tamm had been eyeing the phone booths on his way to work in the morning. Now, as he slipped through the parade of midday subway riders, his heart was pounding, his body trembling. Tamm felt like a spy. After looking around to make sure nobody was watching, he picked up a phone and called The New York Times. (...)
The story of Tamm's phone call is an untold chapter in the history of the secret wars inside the Bush administration. The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its story. The two reporters who worked on it each published books. Congress, after extensive debate, last summer passed a major new law to govern the way such surveillance is conducted. But Tamm -- who was not the Times's only source, but played the key role in tipping off the paper -- has not fared so well. The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past two and a half years. Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life. Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if or when federal agents might arrest him.
Exhausted by the uncertainty clouding his life, Tamm now is telling his story publicly for the first time. "I thought this [secret program] was something the other branches of the government -- and the public -- ought to know about. So they could decide: do they want this massive spying program to be taking place?" Tamm told NEWSWEEK, in one of a series of recent interviews that he granted against the advice of his lawyers. "If somebody were to say, who am I to do that? I would say, 'I had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.' It's stunning that somebody higher up the chain of command didn't speak up.""
It's fascinating, and well worth reading in its entirety. For now, I want to focus on one comment by Frances Frago Townsend:
"You can't have runoffs deciding they're going to be the white knight and running to the press," says Frances Fragos Townsend, who once headed the unit where Tamm worked and later served as President Bush's chief counterterrorism adviser. Townsend made clear that she had no knowledge of Tamm's particular case, but added: "There are legal processes in place [for whistle-blowers' complaints]. This is one where I'm a hawk. It offends me, and I find it incredibly dangerous."
In general, I agree with Townsend. It is generally better for all concerned if whistle-blowers operate within the system, and it is dangerous when people freelance. But there's one big exception to this rule: when the system has itself been corrupted. When you're operating within a system in which whistle-blowers' concerns are not addressed -- where the likelihood that any complaint you make within the system will be addressed is near zero, while the likelihood that you will be targeted for reprisals is high -- then no sane person who is motivated by a desire to have his or her concern addressed will work within that system.
That means that if, like Townsend, you want whistleblowers to work within the system, you need to ensure that that system actually works. A good manager will do this: she will recognize that in any human endeavor, things go wrong, and that it's best for all concerned if people who spot things that have gone wrong can try to do something about it. She will also recognize that those employees who are genuinely worried by the prospect of illegal or immoral conduct are employees she should value. She will therefore bend over backwards to make sure that those employees have ways of making their concerns known that are likely to be effective, and that employees who use those channels are not penalized.
In so doing, she will not only make it more likely that her organization will spot and correct genuine problems; she will also make it more likely that employees who bring what they think are problems to others' attention will accept it if those others don't think that their concerns are warranted. If something worries you and you tell your superiors, but those superiors don't think there is a problem, you are much more likely to accept what they say if you know that they are open to the idea that there are problems, and to dealing with them, but don't think that your specific concern actually indicates anything wrong. If, on the other hand, you know that their response is always to circle the wagons and deny that anything is wrong, you're much more likely to assume that if they don't think that your concern is warranted, they're just being defensive.
If an organization has a functioning system for hearing and addressing employees' concerns about illegal or immoral conduct, then I think that employees should use that system except in truly extraordinary circumstances. But if it does not have such a system, or if that system is dysfunctional, then we should not expect employees to work within it.
It's odd that Townsend doesn't bother to consider whether the "processes in place" for whistleblowers actually worked in the Bush administration's Department of Justice. Given what we know about the degree to which that department was politicized under Bush, it seems likely that they did not.
And it's even odder given that Townsend herself is not an outside observer, but someone who has considerable responsibility within the Bush administration. Saying that whistleblowers ought to work within the system without adding "if the system is in fact functional" is odd in itself. But saying that when you are one of the people who could have helped to make it functional amounts to saying: well, I and my colleagues have failed to do our jobs, but never mind that: we should expect whistle-blowers to work within the system, even if our own failure means that they have no reason to believe that doing so will actually accomplish anything other than the destruction of their careers.
That's a lot to ask.
The Whistle Blower Series