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The Energy Department Took Down Anti-Leaking Posters After An Investigation

"The poster raised concerns that, among others, lawful whistleblowing was being chilled,” a spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency protecting government workers, told BuzzFeed News.

Posted on February 23, 2018, at 10:14 a.m. ET

special to E&E News / Via

The Department of Energy has taken down posters with the slogan “every leak makes us weak,” responding to an investigation by the Office of Special Counsel.

The anti-leaking posters were put up on the walls of the Energy Department headquarters in Washington, DC, last year under President Trump, E&E News reported in early August. The posters show an American flag dripping into a puddle of code and urge staff to “report possible insider threats” to the DOE Insider Threat Program.

The news caught the attention of the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, which was concerned the posters violated “whistleblower” laws that allow government employees to report waste, fraud, and abuse. So the watchdog group in mid-August asked the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency protecting government workers, to look into it, and the agency quickly opened an investigation.

Now, some six months later, the Energy Department has taken the posters down and agreed not to reuse them, the Office of Special Counsel wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to the watchdog group. The letter was first reported by E&E News and confirmed by BuzzFeed News.

“OSC believed the poster raised concerns that, among others, lawful whistleblowing was being chilled,” Jill Gerber, an OSC spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News in an email.

The investigation also resulted in two updated policies for government agencies beyond the DOE, according to the letter. One emphasized that monitoring employee email and other communications should “not interfere with or chill lawful disclosures.” The second one noted that nondisclosure policies, forms, and agreements must include certain language about legal whistleblowing. The Energy Department posters did not have such language.

The watchdog group has claimed the removal of the posters and the distribution of new guidance to agencies as a victory.

“I am glad to see that POGO’s recommendations regarding the placement of these posters and their inappropriate and noncompliant wording has led directly to their removal,” Danielle Brian, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

Although distributed under the Trump administration, the posters were promoting an Obama-era program to protect classified information. It’s unclear who created the posters or authorized them to be put up.

The Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment on the posters.

This isn’t the first time agencies under Trump have left out language about an employee’s legal right to blow the whistle in certain documents and communications, Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy at POGO, told BuzzFeed News. “This issue has flared up a bit more in the last year,” she said.

For example, Customs and Border Protection issued a communication document to the Army Corps of Engineers that also lacked key whistleblower language, according to a November complaint the watchdog organization sent to the Office of Special Counsel. “We know there’s an investigator working on it currently,” Hempowicz said. And the group filed a third complaint, this one about a Department of Justice memo, just this week.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.