Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employees are calling on their leadership to rescind a recent directive instructing them to report colleagues they suspect of leaking sensitive government information, referring to it as an “illegal gag order.”

In a letter Thursday, the national council representing thousands of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employees and the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, urged DHS leadership to withdraw the directive, saying it violates legal protections for government whistleblowers and creates a chilling effect for the workforce.

“When an agency unlawfully gags its employees, it threatens Congress’s ability to engage in oversight; hampers citizens’ right to know about serious misconduct and threats to public safety; and undermines policy-making that depends on the information of whistleblowers,” the letter obtained by CBS News said.

The letter, which was addressed to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Deputy Undersecretary for Management Randolph Alles, responded to a message Alles emailed to department employees on October 13.

In his email, which was obtained by CBS News separately through a DHS source, Alles urged department employees to “be careful when handling all classified, controlled unclassified and draft information,” citing unidentified incidents of sensitive documents being leaked to “unauthorized external entities.”

“Unauthorized disclosures violate DHS policy and potentially federal law. These disclosures could also damage our national security, impede our ability to protect the homeland, aid our adversaries, reveal our sources and methods, and potentially jeopardize the safety of our personnel and the American people,” Alles wrote in his email, which was first reported by BuzzFeed News.

Alles urged DHS employees to report colleagues “you suspect” of leaking classified, draft or sensitive information to “unauthorized personnel,” and take note of incidents in which colleagues ask for information “outside the scope” of their responsibilities.

In their letter, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 119 and the Government Accountability Project criticized Alles’ memo for failing to acknowledge that there are legal safeguards for whistleblowers, which they said supersede any “non-disclosure policies.”

“The ramifications of this violation should not be trivialized as merely semantical omissions,” the letter said. “Employees reading this DHS communication may not understand that their right to make protected whistleblower disclosures supersedes restrictions your directive places on this right. Even employees who know their rights may be intimidated from speaking out of fear of being accused of violating agency policy or being reported by their colleagues.”

The letter said the public disclosure of sensitive but unclassified information, like documents labeled “For Official Use Only,” is protected under the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act when it shows government wrongdoing. The groups warned that Alles’ call for employees to report colleagues suspected of leaking “chills their speech” and could violate their First Amendment rights.

The union of USCIS employees and the Government Accountability Project demanded DHS leaders to “immediately reissue a corrective communication.”

In a statement to CBS News, DHS spokesperson Chase Jennings criticized leaks of classified information, though he did not address disclosures of sensitive but unclassified documents.

“Improperly leaking classified information is a federal crime. Those who leak classified materials are not engaging in ‘protected activity,’ they are breaking the law,” Jennings said. “DHS employees have lawful avenues for reporting inappropriate activity. Leaking classified material to the press is not one of them.”

David Lapan, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who served as the DHS press secretary during President Trump’s first year in office, said the legal restrictions against leaking classified information are well defined and established. But he called Alles’ email and its restrictions on unauthorized disclosures of sensitive but unclassified information “unprecedented.”

“This letter would impact people’s ability to be whistleblowers under the law,” Lapan told CBS News. “The other thing about it that is troubling is this idea that DHS feels the need to ask its employees to report on one another — I mean, it’s Soviet-like.”

Lapan said Alles’ notice “creates further damage” to DHS’ credibility and trust among employees and the public. During the past years, critics have expressed concerns that DHS and its mission are being politicized by Mr. Trump’s agenda, particularly when it comes to border policy and immigration restrictions.

“If I’m a member of the public, I’m saying, ‘what are they hiding? What are they ashamed of? What’s going on?'” Lapan said.

One DHS employee who requested anonymity to speak freely noted being “deeply disturbed” by the instruction to report “suspicious” colleagues, saying, “that’s something that autocracies foster.”

“There’s a difference between leaking information that’s damaging to national security or operations and information that is in the public interest to know in a Democratic society,” the DHS employee told CBS News.

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