Small whistles can make big noises.
They sound the alarm on conduct of illegality, fraud, waste or abuse. They can challenge power.
And they can prevent future debacles.
Many government workers feel they are doing their patriotic duty by bringing attention to wrongdoing.
But such disclosures can put a target on a whistleblower's back, leading them into the perilous world of retaliation.
They are sometimes smeared as traitors, turncoats and liars by their superiors and suffer harassment, punishment or firing.
Dan Meyer doesn't believe a government worker should have to choose between conscience or career.
That's why he's there to offer protection.
As the Director of Whistleblowing and Transparency for Gordon Heddell, Inspector General of the Department of Defense, it is Meyer's job to make sure that any civilian government worker who reports abuses of power does not face reprisals.
In doing so, he often goes up against those in the higher levels of government.
"But Dan is pretty fearless," said David Ingram, a project manager at the Office of the Deputy Inspector General for Intelligence. "He has the knowledge and technical acumen to determine what is right."
Meyer has been named one of 34 finalists for the 2011 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, presented annually by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
The medals program honors the best in the federal workforce and works to inspire others to consider public service careers. It has earned the reputation as one of the most prestigious awards dedicated to celebrating America's civil servants.
Meyer, a Hagerstown resident, was nominated in the National Security and International Affairs division. The medal is accompanied by a $3,000 award.
Winners will be announced Sept. 15 at a black-tie gala in Washington, D.C.
As someone who was a whistleblower himself, Meyer seems a perfect fit for the job and understands the important role that public disclosure plays in improving government performance and accountability.
A former U.S. Navy line officer, Meyer was onboard the USS Iowa during the 1989 explosion that killed 47 American sailors. He later disclosed investigative flaws and alleged wrongdoing to the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the Navy's subsequent investigation.
"I can empathize with the pressure that's put on you," Meyer said. "But the Navy did OK by me."
It's those who aren't so fortunate that Meyer hopes to safeguard.
For years, Meyer said, many people were reluctant to report federal transgressions because of retaliations.
Then came the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which says that federal workers should be protected, not punished, when they disclose wrongdoing of significant public importance.
But, despite the act, whistleblowing remains an often risky and difficult path for federal employees, Meyer said.
That's why he was hired by the Department of Defense inspector general in January 2004 to create Civilian Reprisal Investigations, a program to protect whistleblowing that is relied upon during national security and procurement fraud investigations.
Some of the cases handled by his directorate include:
- A civilian military intelligence specialist who served as a source for the House Armed Services Committee on the subject of improper post-combat care and, subsequently, found himself the subject of security clearance review.
- A civilian security specialist who reported to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service a defense contractor's improper handling and use of classified information and later found himself the subject of significant change of duties.
- A traffic management official who reported procurement fraud in transportation contracts to the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, resulting in suspension and loss of a GS-14 promotion.
Meyer said cases are brought to his office's attention several ways.
"They already have blown the whistle or they are about to blow the whistle and someone has told them to talk to Dan Meyer," he said.
When the person makes contact, "I talk to them and give them some understanding of what is about to happen," he said. "Some don't understand the pressure that will be on them and their family. Once you become a whistleblower, perceptions of you change. If they then want to go ahead, I connect them with the Defense Hotline."
"It's difficult to change the thinking of supervisors and managers, who look at whistleblowing as a form of disloyalty. You need credible civilian and military Defense Department programs to prevent retaliation," he said.
Originally from upstate New York, Meyer said he was commissioned from the Cornell University Naval ROTC and his father was its commanding officer his freshman year. After serving four years, he attended the University of Indiana-Bloomington School of Law.
"I then relocated to the D.C. area," he said. There, he practiced communications law and represented whistleblowers before rejoining the Department of Defense.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a press release that Meyer took the job of protecting whistleblowers to new territory — the Pentagon's intelligence and counterintelligence communities and the world of top secret or "black" programs.
Ruch said Meyer had to fight to get jurisdiction of the "black" programs and there was significant pushback from management.
"I'm persistent," Meyer said. "That's my personality."
Meyer said he encourages individuals who have evidence of wrongdoing to be "quiet whistleblowers."
"You can certainly be a whistleblower without going public," he said. "Anonymity is the whistleblower's cloak."
Meyer said the Defense Hotline exists to take disclosures of wrongdoing, both classified and unclassified.
While some people have a distorted image of whistleblowers, Meyer said disclosure plays an important role in improving government performance and accountability.
"It's all about promoting transparency," he said. "We shouldn't run from letting the people know what we federal employees are doing. In fact, if we had more transparency, we would have fewer problems. More government transparency allows more senior executive and congressional oversight; and oversight allows for the correction of government failure."
Ten years ago, Meyer said, whistleblowing was mostly in the intelligence or counterintelligence arena.
"Now, in the current environment, it's about fraud, waste and abuse. Whistleblowing can tell us where money is leaking from the system," he said. "Even before the current economic crisis, the Pentagon leadership was discussing whether the federal debt was now a national security threat, not just an economic issue."
In doing his job, Meyer said his main concern is the treatment and protection of the employees, whom he described as "very courageous."
"We just call them as they are. I have no concerns at all for protecting the wrongdoer," he said. "At the end of the day, the business of government is the people's business, not the wrongdoer's business."
Meyer said he found out he was a finalist for the Service to America Medals through an email.
His 88-year-old aunt and his 91-year-old uncle from Cockeysville, Md., however, read about it in The Washington Post.
"They called me and were very excited. 'Stand up for the little guy,' my uncle said."
Meyer plans to attend the gala and considers it an honor that he and his team have been considered for the award.
Also named as a finalist is Charles J. Houser and his team from Martinsburg, W.Va. Houser is chief of the National Tracing Center Division, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and is a finalist in the Justice and Law Enforcement division.
Based in West Virginia, the NTC is the country's only facility that tracks firearms from a manufacturer to a purchaser. The center aids law enforcement in identifying suspects involved in criminal violations, detects firearms trafficking and tracks the intrastate, interstate and international movement of crime guns. In 2010, the agency traced nearly 337,000 recovered firearms.