Open-government advocates said a proposed U.S. rule that could lead to more federal jobs being classified as sensitive may also make it easier to fire federal whistle-blowers.
The Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Oversight said the draft rule, published in the Federal Register today, was premature as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit weighs whether employees in “sensitive” jobs have the same rights to appeal termination as other federal workers.
The proposed rule from the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management “dramatically expands the use of this label of sensitive to apply to a great number of jobs,” said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Workers who don’t have security clearances can now appeal their termination to the Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent federal agency whose chairman is picked by the president.
The Government Accountability Project said the rule could classify public-safety workers, border patrol agents, foreign service officials and other federal workers as holding sensitive positions.
If the court decides that workers in sensitive jobs don’t have the same ability to appeal termination, then it may make it easier for administrations to fire employees who leak information to the press or attempt to expose corruption and mismanagement, Canterbury said.
“The current regulations are now 20 years old and provide only general guidance,” the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management said in a joint e-mail response to questions today. “The new regulations will clarify the requirements and procedures agencies should follow when designating national security positions, by providing more detail and concrete examples.”
A White House spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for a comment on the rule.
Earlier this month, U.S. lawmakers criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for subpoenaing phone records of Associated Press reporters after the news service published a story about a foiled terrorist plot that originated in Yemen. The Department of Justice also disclosed earlier this month that it subpoenaed the phone records and e-mails of a Fox News reporter in a leak investigation.
First Amendment groups have also condemned the administration’s indictments of five government workers for leaking information under a World War I-era spy law.
“There couldn’t be a more sweeping roll back on the rule of law for the federal labor force,” Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project, said in an interview.