Allegations of a culture of intimidation towards whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) continue to arise. According to an October 22 Mother Jones article, the VA recently sent emails to employees warning of the dangers of whistleblowers and encouraging them to report suspected whistleblowers. This action seems to be yet another step in the Trump Administration’s “war on whistleblowers.”
Mother Jones reports that in September, the VA Insider Threat Program sent internal emails informing employees that it was “Insider Threat Awareness Month.” The email allegedly states: “The United States has been betrayed by people holding positions of trust. Arguably ‘insiders’ have caused more damage than trained foreign professional intelligence officers working on behalf of their respective governments. Not every suspicious circumstance or behavior represents a spy in our midst, but every situation needs to be examined to determine whether our nation’s security is at risk.” The email continues to explain examples of “suspicious” behavior and encourages employees to report any such behavior.
Insider Threat Programs are standard within U.S. agencies that deal with national security, such as the National Security Agency, the State Department, and the Department of Defense. However, this appears to be a new development within the VA. According to Mother Jones, “there have been concerns that Trump administration officials are abusing the programs in other federal agencies to intimidate would-be whistleblowers and prevent leaks to the media.”
While the email language is vague enough to not constitute direct threats against whistleblowers, some VA insiders see it as a clear attempt at intimidation. One anonymous VA whistleblower told Mother Jones that it is “terrifying that the VA, who is not a member of the US National Intelligence or national security community, is openly and brazenly—and probably unlawfully—using government intelligence resources against US citizens on US soil.”
At the beginning of his term, President Trump signed an executive order establishing the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) to improve the VA’s ability to hold employees accountable and enhance protections for whistleblowers. However, in practice, the OAWP has created an even more hostile environment for VA whistleblowers.
An October 2019 report released by the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) details how the OAWP has failed to protect whistleblowers and has even targeted them. For example, the report details, “one troubling instance involved the OAWP initiating an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory. At the request of a senior leader who had social ties to the OAWP Executive Director, the OAWP investigated a whistleblower who had a complaint pending against the senior leader. After a truncated investigation, the OAWP substantiated the allegations without even interviewing the whistleblower.” Additionally, the report states that “OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect.”
On its own, the VA’s Insider Threat Program would be a troubling development for whistleblowers. However, given the recent history of whistleblower retaliation and intimidation within the VA, it is hard to argue against the Insider Threat Program being another deliberate attempt at whistleblower intimidation.