Veterans Administration Inspector General Demands Whistleblower Documents Submitted To Government Watchdog Group
from the the-First-Amendment-is-no-match-for-our-subpoena-powers dept
The ongoing investigation on the Veterans Administration’s ineptitude and abuse may soon be able to add exposed whistleblowers to its collateral damage. The VA’s Inspector General has made the unprecedented move to subpoena documents turned over anonymously to independent, non-profit watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO).
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ in-house watchdog has demanded that the Project On Government Oversight turn over all information it has collected related to abuses and mismanagement at VA medical facilities, according to a subpoena delivered to POGO May 30.
The subpoena from the VA Office of Inspector General demands all records POGO has received from current or former VA employees, as well as any other individuals, including veterans. The subpoena asks for records related to “wait times, access to care, and/or patient scheduling issues at the Phoenix, Arizona VA Healthcare System and any other VA medical facility.”
While on one hand, the information the IG is seeking is exactly the sort of data it needs to complete its investigation, the larger issue is the subpoena’s potential to undermine the confidentiality promised to whistleblowers who submitted documents through POGO’s VAOversight.org website. Nearly 700 people have turned over information to POGO’s secure dropbox since the site’s launch in early May. POGO advised submitters to take steps to maintain their anonymity when submitting (using TOR, not submitting docs from work phones, computers or fax machines, etc.) and all submissions were sent as encrypted messages.
Now, with a simple administrative subpoena — one that isn’t even signed by a judge — all of this protection is being removed. Anyone who failed to take preventative measures, or might be traced back via other means, can now be exposed by the IG’s efforts.
The current administration talks a lot about transparency and the importance of whistleblowers in keeping the government in line, but its actions have completely contradicted its spoken assurances. This administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all other administrations combined. Those who may be swept up by the IG’s investigation include many who tried to alert the government of the VA’s problems through proper channels, but turned to a third party when their grievances went unanswered.
POGO is fighting this subpoena and has sent a letter to the VA Inspector General apprising him of its non-compliance.
Our unwillingness to comply with the subpoena is consistent with our long history of protecting sources who come to our organization. POGO has consistently refused to turn over information and/or records about our sources, investigations, and practices when government agencies, Congress, and parties in civil and administrative cases made such requests, including requests made pursuant to a subpoena. POGO has always taken the position that the First Amendment protects POGO’s right to protect the whistleblowers, sources, and insiders who come to us with information or assist in POGO’s investigations.
The letter further points out that there’s little reason to believe that the Inspector General doesn’t already have access to the sort of information its seeking.
The IG’s office has provided no basis to suggest that the information possessed by POGO as a result of its investigation of the VA is not already available to the IG, including through the VA IG “hotline.” Accordingly, the administrative subpoena is little more than an invasive fishing expedition.
The IG’s subpoena also highlights a quick and dirty way to undermined protective measures. Peter Van Buren at Firedoglake points out that subpoenas like this make extra efforts like encryption completely worthless.
Edward Snowden, along with many others, has said that the best tool right now to defeat the NSA and other government spying is the use of encryption. It is possible that some forms of encryption are not breakable by the NSA. It is likely that breaking other forms of encryption is slow and/or expensive to do on a world wide web-scale. It is a race of course, between how many supercomputing algorithms the NSA can throw at the problem and the cleverness of the people creating new forms of better encryption.
If the government can access documents and information with a simple piece of paper– a subpoena– then all the encryption in the world is pointless.
This is part of the government’s interpretation of the Third Party Doctrine, one that has made the Fourth Amendment almost completely useless.
DOJ has turned all that around. It claims now that under the Fourth Amendment, it can subpoena an Internet company such as Facebook and demand they look for and turn over all the records they have about Mr. Anderson. DOJ isn’t searching, per se– they are demanding Facebook do that for them, so no warrant is needed. Worse yet, DOJ believes it can subpoena multiple records, maybe all the records something like Facebook has, with one piece of paper. The same thing applies, DOJ claims, to email. If they came to someone’s home and demanded access to that person’s emails, it would require a specific search warrant. Instead, if DOJ issues a subpoena to say Google, they can potentially vacuum up every Gmail message ever sent.
So, while encryption may stymie the interception of communications, it doesn’t do much good when the government arrives with a piece of paper asking for the unencrypted end result of these communications, especially one that is self-issued by the Inspector General with no additional legal scrutiny. POGO encrypted submissions but the IG’s subpoena asks for everything its collected in unencrypted form (“fully legible and complete copies of the records”). The assurances given to anonymous whistleblowers by POGO are as meaningless as the assurances given to users of Lavabit’s encrypted email service. The government doesn’t mind much if you encrypt the “middle,” because it can always just ask for stuff at either end.