After Observer Report, Watchdog Requests Investigation into Border Wall Gag Order

“Whistleblowers are the nation’s first line of defense,” says watchdog group.

Border fence in Hidalgo County.
Border fence in Hidalgo County. Jen Reel

A nonprofit watchdog group is demanding an investigation into whether U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials violated federal law by instructing federal employees and contractors not to speak to the press or public about the construction of Trump’s border wall.

In November, the Observer published dozens of border wall documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Sierra Club. The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) is calling attention to a communication plan for the border wall that directs U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel not to talk to “the public or the media about the mission.” Titled  “Strategic Communications,” the 10-page document states, “In the field only the CBP Office of Public Affairs or a [Border Patrol] agent can speak about the mission to the public or the media.”

The document also warns, “This is a controversial project generating great public interest. This is also a fast-paced program where unexpected developments can be expected.”

POGO contends that CBP failed to include whistleblower protection language required by law in any management communication to federal employees that “directs them to not communicate outside of their agency.” The group says the CBP directive is effectively a gag order, a ban on speaking to the public or media. The protection language, required under the federal Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, advises federal employees that they have the right by law to speak out.

In the letter addressed to the Office of Special Counsel, Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group, writes, “CBP’s management communications are likely to erroneously create the impression that government employees and contractors at CBP, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other agencies have no legal avenue to blow the whistle on government waste, fraud, and abuse.”

The letter was also sent to Senator Charles Grassley, and three House members: Mark Meadows, Elijah Cummings and Frank Pallone, who have sponsored whistleblower protection legislation in Congress.

The group demands that the border wall communication plan be immediately withdrawn and revised to include the required language under law. “We urge [the Office of Special Counsel] to investigate and work to resolve this concern.”

Melissa del Bosque is a staff writer and a 2016-17 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 5:07 pm CST
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