Only Whistleblowers Can Save Democracy

Whistleblower, posters
Whistleblower poster form the State Department Office of the Inspector General (left). Edward Snowden whistleblower sign by Dan McCall (right). Photo credit: DoS OIG
Reading Time: 16 minutes

Revealing the misconduct of others is always dangerous. Yet by exposing public and corporate corruption, whistleblowers perform a vital service — even as they often suffer for it. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, author and scholar Allison Stanger talks about whistleblowing as an adjunct of civil disobedience. She discusses how it has held powerful elites accountable since America’s founding, and why the founders viewed it as an essential action against tyranny. 

Stanger looks at some early whistleblowers and protections going back to 1778. She points out that, even then, these protections were opposed by powerful interests seeking to keep secrets. Stanger highlights the very different world of private-sector versus government whistleblowers, and going further, she shows that even whistleblowers who might expose “waste, fraud, and abuse” in government are very different from those who violate an oath to reveal national security secrets.

Stanger makes the case that while whistleblowers are leakers, not all leakers are whistleblowers. True whistleblowers, she argues, see the world differently and many of them have similar personal traits.

Once an almost exclusively American phenomenon, woven into the US’s cultural and political DNA, whistleblowing is beginning to take root in the UK and, most recently, elsewhere in Europe. 

Stanger discusses the ubiquity of the internet and internet surveillance and its impact on how whistleblowers operate today. Although laws still need to be changed to protect and encourage whistleblowers, she sees more people coming forward to expose wrongdoing, and predicts the rise of what she calls the “traitor patriot.” 

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Coleen Rowley, and the whistleblower who let us know about the Ukraine call, are just a few whose actions sparked international dialogue and their names may be universally recognized. But brave though they were, their courage isn’t universally revered.

Jeff Schechtman: Back in 2002 TIME magazine named three whistleblowers as people of the year and famed whistleblowers such as Frank Serpico, Jeffrey Wigand, and Karen Silkwood have been the subject of major films. Yet vitriol continues against individuals willing to speak out when they see crimes being committed.
Jeff Schechtman: Why are those who dare to expose corruption and worse so frequently ostracized? Why are we so quick to call treason on those who speak truth in the face of power? And what historical and patriotic obligation do we have to support and protect those that speak up? That’s our focus today as I’m joined by my guest, Allison Stanger. She’s the Russell Leng Professor of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. She’s the author of several previous books. Her most recent is Whistleblowers, Honesty in America from Washington to Trump. Allison Stanger, thanks so much for joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Allison Stanger: Jeff, it’s great to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: The idea of whistleblowers and protecting whistleblowers within the context of government is not a new concept. There’s been a lot of talk lately about whistleblower protection laws and when they went into effect, but in fact they go back as far as basically the founding of the Republic. Talk about that.
Allison Stanger: Yeah, that’s correct. I mean whistleblowing is patriotic and dates all the way back to 1778 when Congress passed the first whistleblower protection law to basically address the abuse of public office for private gain. And the story itself is fascinating. It came about because of activities by the first commander in chief of the United States Navy, a man by the name of Esek Hopkins who hailed from Rhode Island. Rhode Island was very much involved in the slave trade. Over 60 and 90% of the slave trade went through Rhode Island ports, and he was very quickly pursuing commercial gain rather than serving the new United States. So George Washington, for example, would send him to engage the British in Chesapeake Bay and he would instead take the US Navy to The Bahamas because it was lucrative. It served his interest and those of his Rhode Island crony friends. So this is a very patriotic issue, an American issue. It’s definitely not a partisan issue. It’s about the system itself.
Jeff Schechtman: When the original whistleblower protection laws were put in place, going back, as you say, to 1778, was there any objection, was there any push back, was there any opposition of any kind to them then?
Allison Stanger: Absolutely, because the powerful, the last thing they want is to have the whistle blown on them and to have what they’d like to keep secret made public. So in Hopkins’ case there were 10 sailors who filed a complaint against him and two of those sailors, Marvin and Shaw, had the bad break of being Rhode Islanders, where Hopkins was very powerful. So they were imprisoned, but Congress not only paid their bail, but they also paid their legal fees and they passed legislation that said that all records related to their case needed to be made public. And that’s the reason we can tell the story today. So the story of whistleblowing in America, while it’s celebrated from the beginning, it’s very much a story of people not living up to their ideals and the powerful trying to keep the less powerful down, is a simple way of putting it.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the history that goes before the contemporary whistleblowers that our listeners probably are familiar with, between 1778 and the whistleblowers of the 20th century. Talk a little bit about the way in which whistleblowers played a role in government and really had a profound influence.
Allison Stanger: Yeah, they definitely did, but they’re present in the form of Ernest Fitzgerald who was defense department auditor who really exposed waste fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, he was on Nixon’s enemy list. You heard him on the tapes saying: “This guy should be fired.” He fought admirably to have his position reinstated and to continue to expose waste fraud and abuse at the Pentagon with enormous pushback. The difference in that case though is that the president was secretly saying: “We’ve got to get this guy fired.” He wasn’t publicly proclaiming it or tweeting it.
Allison Stanger: But then you have Ellsberg of course, with the Pentagon papers, just to give you another example, and he really exposed that the United States was lying about how the Vietnam war was going to the American people. And because he had tried as an insider to get senators and people in the national security community to pay attention to his complaint and it failed. He ultimately shared the Pentagon papers with The New York Times so that when they wrote their first story on the Pentagon papers, they didn’t even have to say that Ellsberg was the source. They didn’t mention his name. They mentioned nothing about him, but all Washington insiders knew that this was the leak and of course the internet age adds a new dimension to this whole issue.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that is so interesting about whistle- blowers is the difference the way they are perceived in the public sector versus the private sector. So many of these whistleblowers that we could talk about that blew the whistle on government corruption were really reviled in so many ways and yet in the private sector people like Jeffrey Wigand, people like Karen Silkwood that blew the whistle on the private sector really had movies made about them and were looked up to in many respects. There really seems to be a really fundamental difference.
Allison Stanger: Yeah. Well you put your finger on something important Jeff, because we really are just coming to terms with national security whistleblowing, which is the current issue. So the private sector is in some instances a little easier. I interviewed Jeffrey Wigand and I interviewed a bunch of corporate whistleblowers, Harry Markopoulos, but that material did not wind up in my book just because I think there is this distinction between whistleblowing in the corporate world and whistleblowing in the national security realm.
Allison Stanger: In the corporate world some lessons have been learned about the importance of whistleblowers. That’s not to say that they aren’t persecuted and retaliated against, but a good company will have robust internal complaints system so that hopefully you can hear complaints internally and address them right before it goes out to the public and damages your company’s position. So if Enron and WorldCom for example, had had those sort of systems in place, they might still be around as companies today.
Jeff Schechtman: It does seem like, particularly with respect to national security whistleblowers, things never turn out very well for them.
Allison Stanger: That’s right. And that’s kind of why this issue is so thorny, because anybody on the national security community swears an oath to protect classified information. We need classified information to keep America safe. But obviously that creates all sorts of potential for abuse of power because there’s just a shroud of secrecy surrounding the national security realm. So that makes it really fraught. And there are also problems with our laws because we have laws that protect all government whistleblowers, but they don’t protect contractors. And indeed the Whistleblower Protection Act… Enhancement Act I should say, of 2012, which provides protection against retaliation to all government employees, it has a clause that excludes anyone working in national security from protection. So that’s what you’re up against in the national security realm. And the inspector general system is one way of trying to create some channel that these complaints can come forward in a legitimate fashion, but it’s a rickety process. And in some sense the fact that this complaint went forward and was turned over to Congress is a miracle, and we should be grateful for it.
Jeff Schechtman: In your research, were you able to find some common traits, common personalities, that really define those that are willing to take the risk of being whistleblowers?
Allison Stanger: You know, I did all kinds of things in my research that didn’t make it into the book trying to explore exactly that question. I even wanted to see what the Myers-Briggs personality types of whistleblowers are, because I thought maybe there’d be some pattern there. And even the national security agency at one point had its ideal Myers-Briggs personality type for an intelligence community employee. But I didn’t really find those patterns. The one thing that I did notice is that whistle- blowers are people who see the world slightly differently. In other words, they look at the status quo that everybody is saying is acceptable and tolerable and say, actually that’s not tolerable, that’s unacceptable. And they speak truth to power and often are treated quite harshly for doing that, and at the same time they can initiate public discussions that actually make a company stronger, a country stronger. And for that I think they should be celebrated. They perform a public service.
Jeff Schechtman: Are whistleblowers seen differently today than they have been seen, say during the cold war or in war times past? Is there a difference in how government national security whistleblowers are perceived in peacetime versus wartime?
Allison Stanger: Yeah, yeah. That is a great question, Jeff, and it’s absolutely a difference. There’s a difference between peace time and war time. And there’s a slow appreciation which I captured in my book that grows, appreciation of whistleblowers grows after the Pentagon papers and into the present day and you see all sorts of legal reforms that reflect that growing appreciation.
Allison Stanger: But at the same time, the paradox of whistleblowing in America remains that we celebrate them in theory in the United States. It’s a very American concept actually. You have to have a strong tradition of valuing dissent, of valuing independence of thought for whistleblowing to even make sense. But even in a country like the United States, for those things that have been traditionally valued, when you get down to practice, you still see this paradox of whistleblowing in America where we celebrate it in theory, that’s why you see both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate unanimously agree that the complaint should be turned over to Congress.
Allison Stanger: But at the same time when it comes to practice, it’s another matter entirely and so we really need, I think, to pay greater attention to how we protect our whistle- blowers and understand the vital role that they play in keeping our elites honest and in keeping democracy alive. Whistleblowing doesn’t make sense enough in a dictatorship where the truth is what the leader says it is. A whistleblower is basically saying to the powerful, you’re saying this is true, but actually it’s otherwise. That’s not permitted in a dictatorship. It is in a democracy, thank God.
Jeff Schechtman: How has the perception of whistleblower shifted as a result of how whistleblowers are viewed in popular culture?
Allison Stanger: I think we might be at a watershed moment for whistle- blowers actually, where we will finally understand their vital significance for fighting corruption and for keeping democracy sustainable. But that’s an ongoing project and it very much depends on how this current issue resolves. It could well be a watershed moment and then we can see reforms that follow to prevent the abuses of power that we’ve seen or have been alleged of late. If you look, for example, at the intelligence community inspector general system, the one through which that whistle- blower complaint rose that we’re looking at currently, that’s developed after Watergate. Congress really looked at the abuse of power in the Nixon administration that led to his resignation and said: “What can we do to prevent that abuse of power again?” And they came up with this system, which could be improved, but we’re lucky we have it. And the same applies to the current situation. There are things we can do and after Trump is gone to fix the abuses of power, the corruption, the lying that we have seen from the current administration.
Allison Stanger: I’m not saying that all politics don’t try to manipulate the truth, but I am saying, and I make the argument that we’re in an unprecedented moment today in terms of both how the intelligence community is behaving, but also in terms of how the White House is behaving. And that’s what makes this a very fraught moment because it looks partisan to support the whistleblower, but it actually isn’t. You’re supporting the system itself, the system of constitutional democracy. But that’s the thing I really want your listeners to understand and maybe many of them do, but talk to your neighbor and tell them this is the case, that this is not a partisan issue. It’s very much about how you keep American democracy alive.
Jeff Schechtman: You make the point that it really is akin to civil disobedience.
Allison Stanger: Yeah. In my book, I argue that it’s a cousin of civil disobedience, but it’s slightly different. In other words, whistleblowers are usually insiders who expose abuses of power, illegality, misconduct, often corruption, because what is corruption? It’s really when the powerful think that the rules don’t apply to them and they’re using that to serve themselves rather than the public. So that’s why we have whistleblowers, but civil disobedience is also important. You might think of whistleblowing as an insider instrument of keeping democracy vibrant, and civil disobedience is also important. That’s outsiders saying that existing laws are unjust. So Rosa Parks moves to the front of the bus in the civil rights movement. That’s breaking the law, but in so doing, she’s showing that law is ridiculous and wrong. And civil disobedience highlights injustice in that regard, but it’s slightly different from whistleblowing.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that seems clear historically is that how we perceive the whistleblower, those that are certainly known and come out in public, in some ways as a function of who they are and what their personality is and that really shapes how they’re perceived. I mean, Edward Snowden is a great case in point I think, a contemporary example of that.
Allison Stanger: Yeah, and he’s still controversial even though he’s handled himself quite admirably in my view ever since …. putting aside the question of whether he should have stolen these documents in the first place. I mean you run into some dangerous territory if you’re going to celebrate all leaks as somehow being good. But there, I think it’s important to keep in mind that all whistleblowers are leakers but not all leakers are whistleblowers. In other words, to know a whistleblower you have to look at the content of their complaint.
Allison Stanger: Leaks take place all the time for political reasons. People have policy differences. They are trying to get ahead in the game. But that’s not whistleblowing. Whistleblowing has to do with misconduct. And in Snowden’s regard, he really revealed the NSA had adopted emergency operating procedures after 9/11 that were justified in war time. It was an extraordinary moment. We had been attacked on American soil on multiple occasions, and he showed that those emergency procedures just became business as usual without American people having a discussion about whether that was something that they wanted. So he forced that public discussion and we saw changes in the Patriot Act as a result. So in that sense, he broke the law in order to uphold the rule of law, which I think makes him a whistleblower.
Jeff Schechtman: Have we gone through historical periods where there’s really been a tremendous backlash against whistle- blowers?
Allison Stanger: I think we’re seeing the potential one now, the most frightening moment of potential whistleblower retaliation because never before has an American president incited his supporters via tweet to retaliate against a whistle- blower. Never before has an American president threatened to unmask a whistleblower by revealing their identity. So it really is a watershed moment where we need the American people to stand up for whistleblowing  as an important way of bringing important truths to light, but also insist that whistleblowers be protected. It’s a particularly dangerous situation when they’re blowing the whistle on the president of the United States. And that’s what makes this an unusual circumstance in which we find ourselves.
Jeff Schechtman: Right. Is there anything that still needs to be done? You mentioned the Whistleblower Act of 2012. Is there anything that still needs to be done in your view with respect to public policy to protect whistleblowers?
Allison Stanger: We really need to address over-classification, because everybody would agree that the system over-classifies information. We have newspaper articles that are readily available on the internet that are classified by the US government. For all sorts of reasons we see this taking place and we need to examine whether what instance that’s really necessary to protect national security, and what instance is just a precaution people take because it’s always in the interest to keep things secret, just to protect against all sorts of charges. But we need to make national security whistleblowing an easier proposition. One easy fix would be to somehow figure out a security conscious way to protect national security whistleblowers from retaliation. We can legislate anti-corruption laws that tell us what the Emolument Clause should mean in the 21st century. There’s a whole number of things that we could do to address the abuses of power that we’re presently seeing. And I’m hopeful that that will be done.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there whistleblowers that people can point to that have caused damage, where the leaked information or the information put forth by a whistleblower has done some damage to national security?
Allison Stanger: Well, that’s always the claim. I wanted to examine that really carefully in my book. And so in researching whistle- blowers, I interviewed the entire senior leadership of the NSA at the time of the Snowden leaks. And that was a hard thing to do, but I managed to do it. But I also interviewed all the NSA whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden. And what you find is there are these two narratives that have absolutely nothing in common.
Allison Stanger: I think this is taking place in our political discourse today where we have two narratives that have nothing in common. But part of what I do in the book is try to tease out from those competing narratives what’s true in the situation. And I feel fortunate because I’m a tenured professor, no one will fire me for anything I say. So I feel almost a moral obligation to say what’s true. And when you do that, you really examine the claims about how this is so security-threatening, they don’t amount to as much as one would originally think. And if anything, it makes me aware that it’s very easy to sacrifice what we’re trying to defend by talking about the imperative security. And that’s true in our criminal justice system. That’s also true with national security.
Jeff Schechtman: What case would you single out where it might be a gray area, where there are two sides, where people can think about the various aspects of both sides of the debate?
Allison Stanger: Well, I guess I would say this, that what we’re seeing right now is necessary. You have the intelligence community blowing the whistle on Donald Trump for failing to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States, which is an oath he swore, and every member of the intelligence community has sworn the same oath.
Allison Stanger: So they’re doing that to save the system itself, it’s not a deep state conspiracy. They genuinely see the American president as a national security threat. So you have both the president behaving in an unprecedented fashion and the intelligence community behaving in an unprecedented fashion. I think that’s appropriate in this emergency situation we’re in. But it’s the last thing we would want to see in the future. So what we really need when this crisis has passed is for things to return back to normal and to keep secrets classified, be loyal to the US president so long as he is serving the American people rather than himself.
Allison Stanger: I argue that we need to go back to … We don’t want a whistleblowing intelligence community over the long term. It’s only appropriate in an emergency situation.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean I guess the question is the degree to which the genie can be put back in the bottle, and that we can achieve what used to be considered normal.
Allison Stanger: I know and that’s the real issue of concern and that’s where I think every American citizen has to play a role in insisting we return to normal. Because if the American people pulled certain democratic ideals as expressed in the constitution, stand by the rule of law rather than crony capitalism and impartial justice, then we can hopefully get back on track and try to close that gap that absolutely exists between American ideals and reality.
Allison Stanger: What we don’t want to do in my view is to throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words, to look at the current situation and say the system itself is a problem, blow it up. Because if you look at it in historical context and you also look at it in comparative context, we may have a lot of problems with the American democracy, but this is an extraordinary achievement and a very fragile experiment that could easily go awry. But it won’t if we insist on things that unite us as Americans rather than divide us. And I think whistleblowing could be one of those issues.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, globally, if you look at whistleblowers around the world, what do you see compared to the way it is part of, as you say, the DNA of this country?
Allison Stanger: That’s a great question, Jeff, and I just have a piece out in the Atlantic today. It starts as this American concept, it becomes an Anglo-American concept in that the UK adapts whistleblower protection laws at the national level in 1998, but it’s now become a European concept. The European union just this month passed comprehensive whistleblower protection legislation that protects both public sector employees and private sector employees from retaliation for whistleblowing. And this is going to be, I argue, a valuable tool in fighting corruption which spills across borders. So it has to be transnational effort. But if the United States isn’t on the front lines fighting corruption, corruption multiplies exponentially throughout the world and we don’t want to see that if we believe in the rule of law.
Jeff Schechtman: Allison Stanger. Allison, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Allison Stanger: Thanks so much for having me on the show, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
Allison Stanger: It’s been great.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Mike / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) and U.S. Pacific Fleet / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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