Evidently July 30 is National Whistleblower Day; it commemorates the day in 1778 when the Continental Congress passed a resolution that "honored ten sailors and marines who spoke out against their commander’s abuses of his office."
I have recently gone down the rabbit hole, reading about whistleblowers, and it is FASCINATING. Fascinating sad, but still fascinating. Here are a few things I have learned about whistleblowers:
- First off, what is a whistleblower? Definitions vary, but seem to agree on the points that a whistleblower is someone who witnesses and can document illegal or dangerous behaviors or policies, and who then reports that wrongdoing through the proper channels set up to do so. In some cases, when they receive no response from the proper channels, they take their information to the press or to special government officials called Inspectors General.
- We all hear the word "whistleblower" a lot, but I do not think we are aware of the many services whistleblowers perform for us. Consider many of the automotive industry insiders who first got word to Ralph Nader that many cars were manufactured in the 60s and 70s (and before that, of course), with absolutely no safety innovations. Do you think seat belts help save lives? You have whistleblowers to thank for those, and too many other laws and safeguards to count.
- Most of us know a few famous whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the guy Russell Crowe played in the movie The Insider, whoever turned Trump in for his Ukrainian phone call, Serpico. But we hardly ever know any of the details or nuances of their cases. If Edward Snowden, for example, ever returns to the U.S., he will be charged under the Espionage Act, and his penalty could be death. So, fine, say the hard-liners. Let him return and defend himself. But here's the sneaky little bit about the Espionage Act: Snowden is not allowed to testify, at his own trial, about why he released the information he did (or about how he tried to bring his concerns about the government and its contractors violating the Constitutional rights of every American citizen to his superiors). The only thing he will be tried on is whether or not he released information, and he is not contesting that. See? That's the barest bones of the tiniest bit of the Snowden story, and it's complicated.
- There are a lot of whistleblowers. A lot a lot. I recently set up a Google Alert for the word "whistleblower" and I get a lot of results every day, about a wide variety of whistleblowers in all sorts of industries and in government. Seriously. It's both amazing and appalling how many whistleblower stories there are on a daily basis. Amazing because, thank you, whistleblowers, for speaking up. Appalling because wow, there is a lot of wrong shit going on everywhere, every day.
- Whistleblowers often tend to have very complex personalities, in the best possible way. They are fascinating people. But here's what I find unbelievable, in the the very best way: They tend to be successful people who are good at their jobs. And yet they often lose their jobs, their health insurance, their pensions, their community connections, their marriages, everything, because the main hallmark of being a whistleblower is that whoever they blew the whistle NEVER says, hey, thanks for the info, let's fix it. What they do instead is they DESTROY the whistleblower.
And that's the crux of the matter. THAT is why I find whistleblowers fascinating. As previously noted, one of the big fears of my life is that my family and I will lose our health insurance. I can't even imagine being a person who just wants to tell the truth about something going wrong, only to find that you are the person who is going to lose your job and your insurance and your employability. Don't think that can happen? Ask Thomas Drake, a senior NSA official who was disgusted that the agency was spending billions of dollars on Operation Stellar Wind, an operation that both mined the personal data of Americans and also didn't work to increase national security*, how the government crushes people it wants to silence (he lost his job, his pension, and had to go to work in an Apple store to support his family).
So: Happy National Whistleblower Day. Celebrate by checking out books like Tom Mueller's Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud; Mark Hertsgaard's Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden; or the classic Serpico by Peter Maas.
*See? Complicated. Every whistleblower story is like that. You have to understand how something should be working, how it's not working, how the whistleblower tried to prove isn't what working, and on how many levels the whistleblower's life is being destroyed, it's a lot to try and follow.