In 2014, former State Department employee John Tye wrote a Washington Post op-ed to warn Americans about the wide-ranging abilities of the National Security Agency to collect bulk data on U.S. persons outside the country.
Unlike leakers such as Chelsea Manning and Reality Winner, Tye didn’t face jail time because he didn’t reveal classified information. He said that’s because lawyers guided him through the government whistleblower process to avoid any illegal activity. Now, he wants to help others do the same.
Tye, the legal director for the global civics organization Avaaz until last year, joined forces with one of those lawyers, well-known Washington, D.C., national security legal powerhouse Mark Zaid, to launch Whistleblower Aid on Monday. The firm’s goal is to provide secure, free legal services to civil servants who want to speak up about corrupt or illegal activities within the government.
“We’re trying to help people with the most sensitive secrets about lawbreaking by officials and by agencies to feel safe and feel like they have a path that doesn’t, until now, doesn’t really exist,” Tye said.
Tye said there’s been a “gaping need” for more whistleblower support that has spanned conservative and liberal administrations. Tye was a whistleblower in the Obama administration, and Zaid has represented organizations such as the Republican National Committee.
Still, Tye said today’s supercharged political environment added urgency to start the group.
“Like many others, we’re concerned by things that are happening: the decision to fire the FBI director [James Comey], a general lack of transparency in the government today and serious questions about rule of the law,” he said.
Government whistleblowers face an onerous dilemma. They take an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws, but are often exposed to a wealth of classified information and top-secret practices they swear never to disclose. Tye said some illegally leak information to the press or others because it can seem like the only option.
Enter Whistleblower Aid. The firm, fueled by donations, will provide free legal representation to almost any government whistleblower who seeks it. Clients might be looking to report suspicious programs, executive overreach or criminal acts. The firm may provide guidance on how and to whom to file a whistleblower complaint, and set up meetings with congressional staffers to litigate First Amendment or qui tam cases in court.
The group may even go beyond legal services by helping fired whistleblowers make ends meet or coaching those who testify before Congress or speak with the media, Tye said.
“We’re trying to provide the full set of services that people will need to feel comfortable, to come forward,” Tye said.
Given the classified or sensitive nature of the information their clients may have, Tye noted security is a top priority. The only way prospective clients can contact Whistleblower Aid is via a website on the Tor network, a subsection of the internet that uses encrypted, anonymous connections that hide the IP addresses of computers accessing it. The group also developed “elaborate security systems and protocols” for communicating and storing documents, Tye said.
Though the group has hired four other lawyers and he’s been in touch with dozens more, Tye would not name anyone else involved in the project.
“We’ve made a deliberate decision not to name other lawyers because of security,” Tye said. “There could be attempts by foreign intelligence to read [our] communications. It’s harder to protect more people.”
While the names of those lawyers may eventually become public in court filings, litigation could be a long way off, Tye said. For now, Whistleblower Aid needs to focus on raising money.
Though the group works for free, they’ll provide “really expensive legal services,” Tye said. Some of the lawyers he’s hired normally charge upward of $600 an hour, but will charge the group about a third of that, he added.
The goal is to raise $350,000 by the end of the year. Tye said he’s hopeful that in addition to individual, crowdfunded donations, various foundations and community groups will donate.
“Everyone recognizes that government lawbreaking and corruption is a serious problem, and we help people report it and expose it without breaking the law,” he said.