As EPA, Other Agencies Muzzle Staff, WatchDog Issues Leaker's Guide

January 24, 2017


WatchDog: Leaker's Guide, Weedkiller Case, Coal-Ash Regs & More

By Joe Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: These are unusual times and WatchDog is responding (see "SEJ Objects to Trump EPA Gag Order, Threat of Data Removal"). In this column, we're switching our usual focus on freedom of information insights for journalists, and instead focusing on those who provide that information — the whistleblowers. We're entering an era when leakers will want to leak, journalists will want them to leak, and SEJ will want to support them both. Hence, for journalists, we're providing a "Leaker's Guide" that might help you in working with potential agency sources in coming months. So go ahead and share this article with potential sources inside government who might need it to build up enough confidence and trust to actually become sources. A"Leaker's Guide" might be just what the world needs right now. Plus, additional WatchDog items on sealed court records on Roundup, secret talks on coal-ash regs and the fight for access under the Trump administration.

1. Leaker’s Guide for EPA and Other Agencies

Leaking is as American as apple pie — a key source of information for journalists and an important check on abuse of government power. With political conflict on the horizon at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, the value of confidential communication between government employees and journalists is sure to go up.

So it’s important for government agency leakers and whistleblowers, and their journalistic colleagues, to be prepared. Hence this Leaker’s Guide.

First, know that leaking is legal, unless you are dealing with classified information — and there is only a tiny amount of that at EPA and most federal environmental agencies. Still, leaking and whistleblowing is usually dangerous because of the possibility of retribution against the leaker.

Anonymous sharing of information

with the news media

can still be highly effective


Retribution against legitimate whistleblowers is actually illegal under the federal Whistleblower Protection Act (originally enacted in 1989). The protections from that law have proven increasingly toothless over the years. The Office of Special Counsel, which is supposed to protect legitimate whistleblowers, has failed to do so in many cases.

So be aware as a source that while formal complaints to protect whistleblowers may not often work, anonymous sharing of information with the news media can still be highly effective, if leakers feel they can trust reporters.

“Only work with media you know and trust,” one veteran agency leaker advises. “Do not let your name be used.”

To help safely and anonymously communicate tips, leaks and documents, many news media outlets have set up online portals using technology like SecureDrop (see more on specific news organizations below). 

But good common sense on the part of leakers is probably more important than advanced web portals. Some things to remember:

  • Don’t call from your work phone or email from your work account
  • Use anonymous or public internet accounts (e.g., a public library)
  • Use web anonymizer technology, such as the TOR Browser
  • Use strong encryption
  • Remain anonymous until trust is established
  • Remove from documents any information that may identify you (e.g., your name on a distribution list)

Among the news and other organizations whistleblowers can trust are:

  • Washington Post: These are the people who brought you Watergate. And while they may have fallen some notches in decades since, they have an editor, Marty Baron, who will stand up (see the film “Spotlight”) and an owner, Jeff Bezos, with pockets deep enough to take on a lawsuit. The Post’s SecureDrop portal is here.
  • The New York Times: A long history of integrity and discretion. Its reporters have gone to court (and sometimes to jail) to protect sources. The Times’ SecureDrop portal is here.
  • Center for Public Integrity: Don’t be confused. This nonprofit is all about investigative watchdog journalism (some of the best). And it has a team that specializes in environment and workplace safety. While its general contact for tips is or 202-466-1300, whistleblowers might prefer to go straight to Managing Editor for Environment Jim Morris at
  • ProPublica: Another nonprofit devoted to investigative journalism in the public interest. It has done exemplary coverage of environment and energy (see Abrahm Lustgarten’s work on fracking). It loves leaks and encourages them.
  • The Intercept: Formed in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden leak by some of the journalists involved in it, and funded by Pierre Omidyar, who is committed to freedom of information. Its welcome page for leakers is here.
  • Mother Jones: This magazine has a venerable tradition of muckraking and undercover work, plus an interest in environment and energy issues. It has no special set-up for leakers, but whistleblowers might call Washington Bureau Chief David Corn (202) 813-1126). There is a general tip form here.
  • The New Yorker: You might not think of The New Yorker as a leaker’s outlet. But it is home to great journalists like Jane Mayer (who blew the lid off the Koch network) and Elizabeth Kolbert. Naturally, it has a Strongbox for leakers.
  • Associated Press: A straight-ahead news organization that protects its sources and welcomes leaks. The best way to initiate a leak is to snail-mail The Associated Press, c/o Ted Bridis, investigations editor, 1100 13th Street NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20005. Leave your return address off the envelope. You can find the AP SecureDrop page here.
  • Other news outlets: If you know of another news outlet that you wish to contact confidentially, look for it in the SecureDrop directory here
  • Government Accountability Project: GAP has a long record of protecting and defending whistleblowers, and understands that informing the press is often an essential part of the process. Information for contacting it is here.
  • Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: PEER has taken up the causes of many employees of federal agencies related to the environment. It offers legal defense, but also presents stories of waste, fraud and abuse to the media. PEER’s whistleblower contact page is here.
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: UCS has often taken up the cause of besieged agency scientists who may be muzzled or otherwise harassed by agency political officials. UCS typically offers support and advice to potential leakers, rather than simply publishing their stories. Two good starting points are Michael Halpern (202- 331-5452, and Andy Rosenberg (617-301-8010).
  • EPA Scientific Integrity Officer: It may seem counterintuitive, but EPA’s Office of Scientific Integrity can prove an ally to a muzzled or whistleblowing scientist there. The agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy supports free flow of information under some conditions, and prohibits undue meddling by political appointees. Under President Donald Trump, however, that could change. The current SIO, Francesca Grifo (202-564-1687), is trustworthy.
  • EPA Inspector General: The Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General investigates waste, fraud, and abuse at the agency. It is politically independent. The current IG, Arthur A. Elkins Jr., was appointed in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama. The OIG Hotline is one option for agency employees who want to report problems. It is confidential and tips can be anonymous. Tips from EPA employees are subject to whistleblower protections.

2. Why are EPA-Monsanto Roundup Cancer Talks Under Seal?

Plaintiffs in lawsuits claiming that Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller caused cancer are asking a court to unseal records of discussions between the company and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about its health effects.

At issue is a quickly withdrawn September 2016 EPA report that contradicted a March 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, report that found glyphosate (Roundup’s main ingredient) to be a probable human carcinogen. Plaintiffs claiming glyphosate caused their non-Hodgkins lymphoma suspect Monsanto and EPA talked about clearing Roundup. Both EPA and Monsanto asked a court to keep records of those talks confidential.

The story came out this month in an article by Carey Gillam, of U.S. Right To Know, a nonprofit advocacy group. The IARC itself, in a separate incident, had urged its scientists not to disclose records related to their deliberations.

3. Docs Show Ky. Regulators Met Secretly on Coal-Ash Regs

Watchdog reporting by Louisville public radio station WFPL unearthed documentation of secret meetings between Kentucky regulators and the utility industry over regulations for handling and disposing of coal ash.

Electric utilities produce vast amounts of coal ash, which has caused pollution of water with toxic heavy metals. Eight years of controversy during the Obama administration seemed to end in 2016 when Congress left more authority to the states on whether to regulate it as a hazardous waste. Kentucky put forth coal-ash regulations in late 2016 that weakened the state’s oversight of coal ash.

Environmentalists oppose the new regs, but regulators defended them, claiming “full public participation.” Now WFPL reporter Erica Peterson has published a piece based partly on documents showing that Kentucky environmental regulators met in private with utility representatives as they developed the regulations. The story was also reported by Jim Bruggers of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

4. Journalists’ Access Under Trump?

Journalists are nervous about how they will fare under the Trump administration. The perennial jousting over access to government information may be the least of their worries, but it is still too early to tell.

On Jan. 18, 2017, the Society of Professional Journalists and some 60 other journalism groups wrote the Trump administration asking for a meeting on news media access. The Society of Environmental Journalists was one of the groups signing. Eight more groups backed the letter after it was sent.

The journalism groups asked for transparency from the incoming administration, and for “an executive order prohibiting the restrictive public information policies that have been the status quo.” They asked not just for a meeting, but for the administration to “engage in a public discussion with us about the Trump administration’s commitment to the free flow of information from the White House and all federal government, to the American people.”

The letter recapitulated access issues that had remained unresolved during the Obama administration. Those included:

  • journalists’ access to government employees without permissions and “minders” from agency public information offices
  • access to activities of the president (an issue with White House correspondents)
  • keeping a strong Freedom of Information Act

The full text of the letter is here.

Signs of bigger problems were abundant. One was what happened Jan. 11 at Trump’s first press conference since the election. It devolved into a shouting match when Trump refused to call on CNN reporter Jim Acosta. CNN had just broken the story of the unverified “dossier” being presented in intelligence briefings on possible Trump ties to Russia. Trump was unhappy that CNN had reported it, and dismissed the cable news network as “fake news.” Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer threatened to throw Acosta out if he tried to ask a question.

A few days later, the news media were disturbed by an Esquire report that the Trump administration was planning to move the press corps out of the White House, where they had been ensconced for decades. It quoted one senior Trump official saying, “"They are the opposition party." Later, after much media fuss, Trump backed down, saying the media could stay — but then said he wanted his own staff to choose which reporters would get in.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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