Joel Clement was a senior scientist who had been working to relocate Alaskan villages doomed by rising seas. That is, until he resigned last week from the Interior Department with a noisy takedown of the Trump administration.
In a memo to his boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Clement wrote, “I believe you retaliated against me for disclosing the perilous impacts of climate change upon Alaskan Native communities and for working to help get them out of harm’s way.”
In June, Clement was removed as director of policy analysis, his memo says, and reassigned to auditing “when I have no background in that field.” He filed for whistleblower protection under federal law.
According to the Los Angeles Times, he’s one of about 50 people shuffled at the Interior Department, which is responsible for the management and conservation of federal land. This apparent sidelining of senior voices is troubling and just the most recent example among federal employees.
A leader with a vital obligation of stewardship of the nation’s lands must have an open ear to the career people who’ve dedicated their lives to the mission. It’s one thing to disagree, but to silence knowledge is foolhardy.
Last month before the National Petroleum Council, Zinke said some of his new staff were problematic. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” he remarked, according to The Associated Press.
As a former U.S. Navy commander, Zinke perhaps has a more rigid sense of what it means to follow a leader. Science asks questions.
These clashes are to be expected in the disruptive age promised by President Donald Trump. He’s named Cabinet secretaries who don’t seem to believe in the missions of the agencies they run. Zinke, a one-term congressman from Montana, has seesawed on human contribution to climate change. He recently recommended shrinking the boundaries of protected national monuments and, according to Clement’s memo, has “played fast and loose with government regulations to score points with your political base.”
However, even in the transparent age pledged by President Barack Obama, whistleblowers weren’t welcomed. His Justice Department prosecuted Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, who at one point faced 35 years in prison for allegedly violating the Espionage Act.
Think of the privacy we might have forfeited if Drake hadn’t exposed the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping of individuals inside the United States. He lost his job and years of his career to fighting the charges, eventually pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor involving misuse of NSA computers.
Dissenters have played a crucial role in our history. Publication of the Pentagon Papers showed the government deliberately misled Americans about the Vietnam War. Mark Felt revealed the Nixon administration’s involvement in campaign crimes. Biochemist Jeffrey Wigand disclosed that tobacco companies manipulated cigarette blends to make them more addictive. As a result of speaking out, he received death threats.
Clement is promising to travel the same road. “You have not silenced me,” he wrote to Zinke in his resignation memo. “I will continue to be an outspoken advocate for action.”
However, as many whistleblowers have discovered, that vocation can be rocky. In his 2001 book, “Whistleblowers,” political scientist C. Fred Alford wrote of his interviewees, “almost all say they wouldn’t do it again.” They had been “broken” by job loss and what they learned about the world after blowing the whistle.
That’s a sad commentary on the cost and value of truth-telling. People in Alaska might pay with their towns, and possibly with their lives.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.