If it weren’t for the whistleblower who spoke out about President Donald Trump’s dealings with the Ukranian government, House Democrats may never have started an impeachment inquiry against the president.
Whistleblowers have a long history both in the United States and abroad. They have played central roles in bringing some of the most important and historic stories of all time into the public sphere. But they often face harsh criticism and grave retribution for speaking out against the corruption and misconduct of the powerful.
What is a Whistleblower?
“A whistleblower is someone who comes across wrongdoing or a probable threat to the public interest in the context of their work and they want to report that information,” Whistleblowing Program Coordinator at Transparency International Marie Terracol told The Globe Post. “It can be just within an organization, your company or a public institution.”
Terracol explained that ideally, the whistleblower would report wrongdoing internally and the company or institution they work for would address the problem. But that’s not always what happens and at times it’s necessary to go to the public in order to hold wrongdoers accountable.
“I think what’s important is for the wrongdoing to actually be addressed,” Terracol said.
Whistleblowers have played important roles in major stories throughout history. In 1971, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg disclosed classified documents now known as the Pentagon Papers, which proved multiple administrations had been lying about the Vietnam War and the government’s reasons for waging it. A couple of years later, FBI agent W. Mark Felt, also known as “Deep Throat,” disclosed information to the Washington Post which eventually led to the resignation of Richard Nixon.
Listen here: “I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” President Trump said. https://t.co/HsUIczrgZR pic.twitter.com/TR2LRY9iN5
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) September 26, 2019
In more recent years, Edward Snowden exposed a massive illegal spying operation by the National Security Agency and Chelsea Manning leaked the “Iraq War Logs” to Wikileaks, which famously included gunsight footage from an Apache helicopter which gunned down civilians and reporters during an operation in 2007.
An important distinction to make is the difference between the legal definition of a whistleblower and the more colloquial understanding of the word. The legal definition of a whistleblower is someone who brings wrongdoing to the attention of law enforcement or a government agency. The colloquial understanding is anyone who speaks up about waste, fraud, and abuse, regardless of the channels they use to do so.
The unnamed whistleblower who came forward regarding Trump’s Ukraine dealings would fall under the legal definition of a whistleblower and is therefore protected under the law, at least in theory. People like Manning and Snowden, however, do not fall under that definition because they chose to deliver their materials to the press rather than law enforcement or the government and thus do not benefit from the same protections.
“Pretty much any time you’re talking about anyone with a lot of power and money, one of the only ways we can effectively check them and know what’s going on tends to be because whistleblowers came forward,” Mandy Smithberger, Director of the Center for Defense Information, told The Globe Post. “They do so at great personal risk.”
Risks for Whistleblowers
Indeed, whistleblowers often face retribution for speaking out. Snowden, for example, has led a life of exile for his choice to expose the NSA’s mass domestic spying program, and Manning spent years in prison for leaking to Wikileaks. In other examples, Terracol said whistleblowers in some countries in Latin America where Transparency International has chapters have been assaulted or even killed for speaking out.
Recently, President Trump made threats toward the whistleblower who filed the complaint regarding Ukraine, calling the whistleblower a spy and warning of “big consequences.” House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff called the threats “witness intimidation” and an attempt to “obstruct” the impeachment investigation.
“While there are protections in place in the law, enforcement is not always as strong as it appears to be,” Smithberger said. “Many whistleblowers lose their jobs. The strain of being a whistleblower can have a significant impact on their personal life as well. It’s a very big decision to come forward and we, unfortunately, have more stories of tragedy than we do of people being able to thrive after they come forward.”
The way the press handles stories involving whistleblowers can also have consequences for them. The New York Times recently faced criticism for publishing identifying information about the whistleblower involved in the impeachment inquiry. Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer, told The Globe Post it’s important for the press to respect and protect the privacy and anonymity of whistleblowers and focus on the reported misconduct at hand.
“The whistleblower is not the story,” Moss said.
“The story is the substance of the complaint and what, if anything, the two political branches will ultimately do to resolve this …The whistleblower did his or her job as allowed by statute. They should be allowed to fade back into the darkness and continue their work in anonymity unless he or she chooses to come forward publicly, which at this time clearly they have no desire to do.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on October 7 to clarify that whistleblowers in some countries where Transparency International works have been harmed in the past, but these individuals were not working with the organization at that time. Transparency International works with whistleblowers to provide safe, anonymous channels for reporting corruption.