Falsified weapons tests. Wasteful defense spending. Those were the issues that Danielle Brian ’85 encountered when she went to work as an intern in the early 1980s for a small band of whistle-blowers within the Pentagon. She was only a junior, but the experience taught her a life-changing lesson: “You can change the world with a small organization.”
Thirty years later, Brian is executive director of that small organization, now known as POGO (Project on Government Oversight), a leading nonpartisan watchdog group. Under her 20-year leadership, POGO has exposed a breadth of problems, notably waste and inaction in the Pentagon and conflicts of interest in the Securities and Exchange Commission. But POGO’s work doesn’t end there. The organization has also put in place whistle-blower protections and reforms to right government wrongs. Author and pundit Lewis Black called POGO “the most ass-kicking . . . bunch of goody-two-shoes, good-government types in America.”
“I love that the people we work with share our interest in helping to make government work,” Brian says. “I’m surrounded by good guys, so how could I not be enthusiastic about going to work every day?” Brian is particularly proud of an early POGO investigation that exposed the underpayment of oil and gas royalties to the government, resulting in the recovery of half a billion dollars meant for public schools and American tribes, along with rule changes to prevent future fraud. Recent investigations have focused on sexual assaults within the military and a Food and Drug Administration practice of allowing people who are paid by drug companies to serve on advisory panels for a drug’s approval.
Brian’s many honors include the Smith College Medal in 2010 and induction into the Freedom of Information Act Hall of Fame. A native of Florida, she now lives near D.C. Her daughter attends William & Mary, and her son is a political organizer. At Smith, Brian served as SGA president and credits both the house system and student government for helping students to “take life in your own hands,” she says. “Smith made me feel powerful, that all of us were powerful. And that’s lasted my whole life.”
You’re passionate about the right of freedom of information. Where does that come from?
I believe deeply that the government is of the people and that it is the people’s information and that transparency is the best anticorruption tool. What we’ve found over time is the reverse, that secrecy is frequently used to hide wrongdoing. From our perspective the harder we can push to reduce excessive secrecy, the more likely we are going to have a less corrupt and more effective government.
How does POGO drive those changes?
We only take on one percent of the cases that come to us, and we have guidelines for which cases to pursue, including being able to get documents to prove our case and being able to identify solutions. To prove the case is the longest part of the process. We do a universe of investigative reporting based on the initial tip. Then we have a body of work that is persuasive to journalists and policymakers that this is something that matters and needs to be fixed; then we go about fixing it. We’ve found we can leverage social media to engage citizens to help us. People in the White House tell us it’s not good enough just to be right. You have to show there are people out there who care.
How do cases come to you?
Through our website. Also, congressional offices send people to us. We’ve developed a reputation as a trustworthy broker, and people will contact us because they’ve seen we can have an impact. Now, in the era of NSA [National Security Agency] surveillance and warrantless wiretaps, I’m finding that people have started delivering documents in brown paper envelopes.
Yes. Recently, someone left a little package at the door. But technologies are being developed to deliver documents securely. We don’t want someone bringing us information and then getting in trouble. The whole purpose of our existence is to protect people who are trying to tell the truth, and we take that mission very seriously.
Do you think your organization has been subject to snooping?
We have assumed for years that we have been. That’s one reason we don’t want people contacting us from government phones or using government computers, and we try now to move into nonelectronic communications as much as possible.
POGO has long been concerned about the kind of government secrecy exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who has been charged with espionage. Could his revelations bring changes?
Decisions that come through either Office of Legal Counsel memos at the Justice Department or the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance] courts are essentially secret laws. These secret laws were being established without any oversight. The public outrage that resulted from Snowden’s revelations is giving us a lift in being able to finally force some level of openness to those very important proceedings or decisions.
What makes someone risk becoming a whistle-blower?
A person is generally just doing their job, but they feel betrayed by the system. Often, there’s a real existential moment before they come to us where they feel a breach of trust in the system they have been operating in. It’s a big moment for a person who has worked inside a large institution to cross the Rubicon and come over to us.
What happens to a person, particularly if they go public, after blowing the whistle?
It almost always has an impact on their career and their family. Many get divorced. It is not uncommon for whistle-blowers to become consumed with proving that they are right because what is happening to them isn’t fair. Part of what we try to do is get the information out and protect their identity so that nothing happens to them. Washington is full of people who want to do the right thing, but institutions don’t reward people for telling the truth, even internally. That’s a big change that needs to happen. People would be less likely to go outside if they think the problem can be fixed inside.
This story appears in the Spring ’14 SAQ