WASHINGTON — After the deaths of at least 40 veterans on a health care waiting list, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will announce Thursday an online whistleblower project meant to expose widespread problems plaguing the Veterans Administration health care system.
The online kit will instruct veterans on best practices for reporting abuses and potentially leaking documents. The tools are critical now, organizers say, when veterans face a health care system they say is in crisis and an Obama administration that has had a "chilling effect" on whistleblowing. The White House says it values and protects whistleblowers.
Asking VA employees to go outside the system and straight to the public with problems is in keeping with the military traditions veterans are taught to uphold, said IAVA Chief of Staff Derek Bennett, a former Army Captain and Special Assistant to General David Petraeus.
"As a veteran myself, I recognize the importance of the chain of command," he said. "But as a former company commander, I know that my soldiers always had the opportunity to circumvent the chain of command if my work or my staff were part of the problem."
The ongoing VA hospital scandal, which has seen top officials subpoenaed by Congress amid allegations that VA hospitals have covered up long wait times, has infuriated veterans' groups, including the IAVA, which deals specifically with veterans of post-9/11 conflicts.
After delays at the Phoenix VA hospital went on so long that some veterans allegedly died while waiting for care, complaints about the overloaded VA hospital system have emerged all over the country. Veterans and congressional investigators have complained that it has been tough to get straight answers from inside the VA and its embattled leadership.
To combat the problem, the IAVA is joining with the Project On Government Oversight to launch VAOversight.org, a site specifically designed to help VA employees leak to POGO investigators and the media. POGO, which has long helped whistleblowers and other leakers get their information out, says the collaboration is the first of its kind in the group's history.
The website and the whistleblower campaign will be announced at a Thursday press conference featuring IAVA leaders, POGO officials, and veterans. BuzzFeed was given an early look at the site and how the program works.
Even with the help provided by POGO, Newman said leaking remains a dangerous business, especially in the Obama era.
"Certainly the fear of reprisal is real," he said. "We don't have any personal knowledge of reprisals in the VA at the moment… but in general it's the norm not the exception."
The site offers detailed training in how to circumvent the stringent anti-leak efforts put in place across the government by the Obama administration, which has made cracking down on unauthorized leaks a priority.
"What we've seen with the Obama administration is the lengths they will go to try to keep things in house," said Joe Newman, communications director at POGO.
Newman, a former journalist, said the Obama administration has for the most part carried over intense anti-leak programs launched in the George W. Bush administration. Changing technology and a changing emphasis on national security have focused attention on whistleblowers and investigating leaks, he said.
Still, Newman added, the Obama administration's zeal to track down and punish leakers is well-documented.
"The thing that makes the Obama administration really stand out is the use of the Espionage Act. They've invoked it seven times [against leakers] and that's more than every other administration combined when it comes to going after people who have leaked to the media," he said. "That really puts the Obama administration in a different category as far the extent they'll go to keep things secret."
Bennett said Obama's prosecutions have had the desired effect when it comes to leaks.
"If you just look at the number of whistleblower prosecutions, this administration is significantly higher than the previous administration," he said. "I can imagine that post-Snowden, there is even more concern about that. So, yeah, I can imagine there's a chilling effect."
But the VA is not an intelligence agency, where even speaking to the media on any topic without authorization is strictly, forbidden. And successful whistleblowing has played a major role in the unfolding VA scandal. On Monday, employees at the Durham, North Carolina VA hospital were put on leave after a fellow employee alleged they falsified records to hide wait times.
While there are built-in reporting systems for problems, IAVA says internal systems aren't working fast enough to fix the VA and more employees need to be encouraged to come forward. Bennett said veterans can't wait for the problems inside the VA to be fixed.
"Our members are outraged and flabbergasted about the allegations that are coming out," he said. "As somebody's who's not in the system, I don't know their exact process [at the VA.] But clearly there is something about the culture or the structure that these employees...do not feel comfortable sharing internally."
The White House says it appreciates and welcomes whistleblowing.
"The Obama administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting whistleblowers," an administration official said. "The president appointed strong advocates to the Office of Special Counsel and the Merit Systems Protection Board who have been widely praised. The President also signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which improves whistleblower protections for Federal employees."
Beyond the high-tech tools, Newman added, sometimes the simplest advice is the best when it comes to avoiding being caught as a leaker.
"FOR YOUR PROTECTION, DO NOT USE A GOVERNMENT OR CONTRACTOR PHONE, FAX, OR COMPUTER TO CONTACT POGO," the IAVA-POGO site reads.