With the Trump administration only weeks old, fear and declining morale are already pervasive in federal land management agencies that together steward some 600 million acres of public land, mostly in the West.
Talk of gag orders, clampdowns on how public information is dispensed, disavowing established science, removing mention of climate change from government websites and unilaterally imposing a hiring freeze on agencies struggling to keep up with workloads are just part of a new unprecedented era in civil service.
Nearly 20 years ago, I authored a book “Science Under Siege: The Politicians’ War on Nature and Truth,” which profiled a wide range of federal and state whistleblowers involved with wildlife and land management agencies. I interviewed attorney Thomas Devine, then with the Government Accountability Project, which represents thousands of clients punished for speaking the truth.
Many believe the Trump administration will create a booming business for public interest organizations like the Government Accountability Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Devine identified eight tactics often used by bureaucrats and political appointees to silence civil servants challenging policies that undermine natural resource protection.
Tactic one: Make dissenters the issue, instead of their message. “The first commandment for this brand of ‘political science’ is to obfuscate [the message of] the dissenter by attacking the source’s motives, professional competence, economic credibility, sexuality, or virtually anything else that will work to cloud the real scientific issues,” he said.
Tactic two: Isolate the scientific dissenter. “Here the technique is to transfer the ‘troublemaker’ to a bureaucratic Siberia, both to make an example of them and to block the employee’s access to information,” Devine said. At the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management, “the most popular reprisal technique has been to reassign employees from active environmental monitoring projects in the field to headquarters desk jobs where they don’t receive any assignments and are monitored by bureaucratic babysitters.”
Tactic three: Place the dissenter on a pedestal of cards. A common practice is to give the whistleblower an assignment but make it impossible to complete in a timely or professional manner. “This technique involves appointing the dissenter to solve the problem and then making the job impossible through a wide range of techniques, undercutting any realistic possibility of actually getting it done,” Devine says. “The finale then is to fire the employee for being incompetent when the problem is not solved.”
Tactic four: Create trumped-up charges against the person the agency wants to silence. “The technique here goes well beyond merely defeating a whistleblower. In order to prove to others that no one is safe, the goal is to make the most outrageous charges possible,” he said. “For example, a dissenter who is renowned for being a gentleman may face sexual harassment charges. A soft-spoken, self-effacing individual will be branded a loud-mouthed egomaniac.”
Tactic five: If you can’t make conditions miserable enough so that the whistleblower quits, eliminate the job. A common practice is to lay off employees committed to resource protection even as the agency hires new staff. Also, gut funding for research.
Tactic six: If intimidation doesn’t work, prosecute them. Attack whistleblowers for “stealing” the public information they use to expose corruption, even if they collected or prepared the information themselves. This tactic is often used in the corporate world and was used against whistleblowers trying to show that tobacco companies knew that smoking caused cancer. In the case of federal agencies, the “government,” which is to say political appointees who don’t want information released, argues that they alone control what information should be made available, even though the information by law belongs to the public.
Tactic seven: Substitute “democracy” for the scientific method. In other words, employ the bureaucratic equivalent of mob rule. For example, those unwilling to challenge suppression or distortion of science and who are loyal to corrupt managers, outvote whistleblowers or shun them in management decisions.
A more subtle variation of this tactic is to misuse scientific peer review as a discrediting tactic by packing an allegedly “objective” panel with people who have a particular bias that is sympathetic to a political agenda or worldview. An administration, for example, may install senior bureaucrats who forbid agencies under their command from acknowledging that climate change is real.
Tactic eight: Don’t put anything in writing, especially when it involves people you wish to intimidate. At the same time, autocratically issue informal gag orders against possible dissidents, warning that if they say anything public, talk to the media, or seek outside help they will be punished.
Managers skilled in this art of intimidation carefully restrict any threats they make to oral dialogue and hearsay. Such intimidation is supported by applying verbal peer pressure, holding meetings behind closed doors and carrying out harassment over the phone. The point is that it is difficult to accuse someone of wrongdoing if there are no paper trails and no witnesses.
A more recent iteration of this in the digital age is for agencies to withhold damning email and internal documents from the media targeted through the Freedom of Information Act, claiming backchannel correspondence is “pre-decisional” and therefore covered by open data laws. Some states have made it difficult or costly for public interest entities, including the media, to have open records requests processed.
If you are a natural resource whistleblower, or know one, and want to discretely share information, I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Todd Wilkinson has been a journalist for 30 years. He writes his New West column every week, and it’s published on explorebigsky.com on EBS off weeks. Wilkinson authored the recent award-winning book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek: An Intimate Portrait of 399, the Most Famous Bear of Greater Yellowstone,” featuring 150 astounding images by renowned American nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen. His article on climate change, “2067: The Clock Struck Thirteen,” appears in the winter 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine, on newsstands now. The New West also appears every week at thebullseye.media.