“There Will Be Consequences” (Uh Oh, Did I Say That Out Loud?)

By Guest Columnist: Donna Boehme

Principal at Compliance Strategists LLC and editor of the weekly CS Newsflash (and former chief compliance and ethics officer at two leading multinationals)

In Washington, there’s an old cliché: The definition of a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. So this recent internal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) video gone viral, one of several internal “changecasts” from Acting ATF director B. Todd Jones, has got to qualify him for induction into the Gaffe Hall of Fame. In it, he ominously warns ATF employees that those who go outside the “chain of command” to report concerns – such as to Congress, outside inspector generals or the Office of Special Counsel — will suffer “consequences”:

Choices and consequences means simply that if you make poor choices, that if you don’t abide by the rules, that if you don’t respect the chain of command, if you don’t find the appropriate way to raise your concerns to your leadership, there will be consequences because we cannot tolerate, we cannot tolerate an undisciplined organization.
See full transcript at the Washington Guardian.

A veteran ATF agent who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal (hmmmm………) confirmed that he and his colleagues interpreted the message to mean they would be punished, with vigour, for going outside the ATF agency chain of command to report concerns. Whistleblower advocates immediately decried the video as “chilling” “Orwellian” and “intimidating.” Because that’s the very function of those outside resources, so that employees who do not feel safe raising concerns internally (and after this video, that number just rose to 100%) without fear of retaliation. Given ATF’s important mission, as with any national security watchdog, this is squarely in the public interest.

You would think that in the aftermath of the seriously botched ATF Fast and Furious gun-walking operation (where, inexplicably, two whistleblowers who testified to Congress have been placed under the supervision of the same manager who has vowed to retaliate against them – infamously remarking “ATF needs to f**k these guys.”), the embattled agency would be trying to turn over a new leaf. But change is hard.

Just as damning is the agency’s idea of damage control. The explanation: Director Jones was simply trying to address complaints from ATF employees wondering why agents who previously went outside the chain of command hadn’t been punished. That tells you all you need to know about the current ATF culture and to a great extent, prevailing culture within many government agencies (I’m looking at you, FDA) [1] – an uncontrollable urge to squash like a bug anyone with the temerity to tell the truth about bad acts, whether internal or external. A quick review of the treatment of whistleblowers in government agencies with embedded “command and control” tells a familiar story: TSA, FAA, CIA, FBI- all have a long unsettling history of whistleblower retaliation.

The nonprofit Rutgers Center for Government Compliance and Ethics believes that this troubling pattern is further evidence that government agencies should take a page from the private sector by moving beyond the policing function of the inspector general, and establish proactive compliance and ethics programs that would hold government officials and employees to the same standards expected from those companies that they regulate and oversee. So far, only the FBI has gone down this road, and even though it has further work to do, it is to be commended for doing so.[2]

In the meantime we are left with this revealing “accidental” moment of truth about ATF culture that should be of enormous concern to a citizenry relying on this troubled agency to discharge a critical security role in a dangerous and uncertain time for our nation.

[1] Currently in the news: a wide-ranging surveillance program by the Federal Drug Administration against a group of scientists who raised concerns about the safety of medical imaging devices. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/17/us/politics/inquiry-sought-of-extensive-fda-surveillance.html

[2] November 2011 Report of the Department of Justice Inspector General on the FBI compliance and ethics program http://www.justice.gov/oig/reports/2011/e1201.pdf