Lawmakers and government accountability advocates have expressed concern over a July 9 video message directed at Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents by ATF Acting Director Todd Jones, which they say is a veiled threat to government whistleblowers.
"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," Jones said in the video.
Some lawmakers and government accountability groups interpreted the words as a warning to employees considering blowing the whistle on corruption.
In a July 18 letter to Jones, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) wrote ATF employees must be "free and clear of agency interference or retaliation” if they choose to talk to Congress.
“Your ominous message—which could be interpreted as a threat—is likely to have a major chilling effect on ATF employees exercising their rights to contact Congress,” the two lawmakers wrote. “Therefore, it needs to be clarified.”
“On numerous occasions, we have stressed to ATF and the Department of Justice the importance of protecting whistleblower disclosures and preventing retaliation against whistleblowers,” they continued.
“The bureau needs to make up its mind whether it’s going to be supportive of employees trying to get its mission back on track, or if it’s going to snuff out dissent,” said Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project. “There doesn’t seem to be any consensus.”
Grassley and Issa spearheaded the investigation into “Operation Fast and Furious,” a flawed gun-walking scheme in which federal agents allowed thousands of firearms to be smuggled across the U.S. border and into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.
"What it appears to be is a not-so-veiled threat telling (ATF employees) not to do what they did to expose Fast and Furious," Issa told Fox News. "He's basically saying, ‘No, keep it in the chain.’”
Former ATF agent Jay Dobyns, who has been an outspoken critic of the agency’s leadership, said Jones’ video misrepresented the atmosphere at the agency toward whistleblowers.
“The problem is the whistleblowers I know have all played by the rules and presented complaints to first, second and third level supervisors, the Ombudsman’s office, Internal Affairs, the EEOC, the OIG and OSC, Congress, and finally the media,” Dobyns wrote on CleanUpATF.org, a forum created by fellow ATF whistleblower Vincent Cefalu.
“None that I am personally aware of immediately jumped [up] and put themselves in front of a reporter or camera. What Acting Director Jones does not discuss is the utter lack of interest when whistleblowers follow the rules. He talks as if the process is balanced but the truth is it is a one-way street. You get NO attention or concern until an executive is embarrassed in the media. Not even an acknowledgement of a complaint beyond a boilerplate email—thank you for your interest; we are very concerned; blah, etc.”
Grassley and Issa have previously voiced concern over retaliatory statements made against whistleblowers at the ATF. In a June 29 letter to the Inspector General, Grassley and Issa wrote that, according to eyewitness accounts, ATF Chief of Public Affairs Scot Thomasson vowed retaliation against agents who first disclosed the details of the scandalous Fast and Furious operation.
"All of these whistleblowers have axes to grind,” Thomasson allegedly said. “ATF needs to f—k these guys. We need to get whatever dirt we can on these guys and take them down."
The Government Accountability Project’s Devine said his organization is working to promote legislation called the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which would strengthen protections for government employees who report misconduct.
The bill is currently in pre-conference negotiations between the House and the Senate, and he expects a final vote sometime in September, Devine said.
Devine said his organization has recently had positive experiences with ATF leadership resolving whistleblower complaints, but the July 9 video sent a contradictory message.
The Obama administration has been among the harshest in American history when it comes to targeting and prosecuting the whistleblowers that leak information, as well as the journalists who obtain that information.
Under President Obama, more Americans have been charged under the Espionage Act for leaking classified information than all previous administrations combined.
President Obama pledged to run the “most transparent administration in history” upon entering office.
In a statement to the Free Beacon, ATF spokesman Marc Willis said the video was addressed to all employees, senior and junior level, and was not meant as a threat.
"The excerpt in question was not intended to discourage those with protected disclosure from pursuing the full range of legal protections available to them in raising work-related concerns," Willis said. "Acting Director Jones and the leadership of ATF respect the rights of all ATF employees. The ATF leadership has specifically reminded employees and supervisors of employees with protected disclosure rights, about their protections under federal law."
The spokesman also said Jones has expanded opportunities for employees to report work-related concerns since his appointment and added more staff in its ombudsman office to handle complaints.