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Government whistleblowers discuss consequences of actions

Two government whistleblowers, Cathy Harris and Thomas Tamm, discussed their experiences as whistleblowers and the consequences of their whistleblowing actions at a lecture on campus on Tuesday.

Beatrice Edwards, executive director and international program director of the Government Accountability Project, a nongovernmental organization that aims to promote government accountability by protecting whistleblowers and other activists, moderated the lecture. Associate politics professor Paul Frymer offered commentary.

Edwards began by giving a history of whistleblowing in the United States, citing the aftermath of the Watergate scandals of the 1970s as a time of “real constitutional crisis.” He said this crisis would have been mitigated if people involved in the crime could have spoken out without fear of retaliation.

“In our surveys we find that the first thing that stops people from saying something about the wrongdoing they discover is their fear of retaliation,” Edwards said, “and second, they’re concerned that if they do say something, it won’t matter.”

Harris, a former senior inspector for the U.S. Customs Service, then discussed the issues she faced as a female U.S. Customs officer in El Paso, Texas, Miami, Fla. and finally Atlanta, Ga. Harris said that at these job positions she witnessed multiple abuses of power and sexual misconduct toward female passengers, especially African-American women traveling internationally. She noted instances at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport where African-American women would be taken into interrogation rooms and made to stay naked for hours or be detained for up to four days.

After trying to go through the chain of command at work, Harris said she went to the media, knowing that she was likely to be fired regardless. Her verified findings of racial profiling, echoed by the media along with help from GAP resulted in federal legislation to reform customs policies.

Tamm spoke of his experience as a government whistleblower during his time as an attorney in the U.S. Justice Department. Tamm explained that after transferring to the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review in the aftermath of 9/11, he discovered that the government was conducting an illegal, nameless program that allowed government officials to evade the procedures of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provides certain procedures to be followed before electronically monitoring individuals.

“I thought there was something smelly, and I started asking questions, which probably wasn’t a good idea,” Tamm said.

Tamm said that after inquiring about the legality of the operation to superiors and friends in other branches of government and “thinking about it long and hard,” he decided to go to the press anonymously. He then described how in the aftermath, his home was raided, and he faced criminal federal charges of espionage which were eventually dropped in 2011. Tamm added that he was left bankrupt and out of work as a result of his whistleblowing, saying that he wished he had known of organizations like GAP that could have helped him at the time.

“Often a whistleblower can have a tremendous impact, but they do need support and they do need defense,” Edwards said.

The American Whistleblower Tour: Essential Voices for Accountability is part of a series of talks held by GAP and many universities across the country. The lecture was on Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. in Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall.

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