Today is National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, an annual recognition of whistleblowers whose actions have protected the American people from fraud or malfeasance. The holiday’s origins date back to 2018, when the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution to mark July 30 as the commemorative day led by Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The particular date was chosen to mark the Continental Congress unanimously passing America’s first whistleblower law in 1778. Enacted during the height of the American Revolution, the law was meant to demonstrate that Founding Fathers recognized and respected the importance of whistleblowers and demand that they be protected.
“The idea was ‘to protect federal employees for employment if they disclosed information they reasonably believed was: a violation of law, rules or regulations; evidence of mismanagement or a waste of funds; evidence of an abuse of authority; or something that presented a substantial or specific danger to public health or safety,” explained Dr. Charles A. Morgan III, M.D., M.A., professor of national security in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven.
“Within this framework, a whistle blowing disclosure that arises from the intelligence or Department of Defense (DoD) communities typically, and historically, represents the perception, on the part of the whistleblower, that one of three things – or a combination of the three – has occurred: a violation of law, an abuse of power or a threat to the American public health or safety,” Morgan told ClearanceJobs.
What is a Whistleblower
Whistleblowing isn’t just about sharing secrets – and a common misconception is that anyone who shares such information could be described as a whistleblower, but that’s far from the case.
“Whistleblowers typically reveal information about government agencies or businesses that range from the merely embarrassing to clearly felonious acts,” said technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT.
“The difference between a whistleblower and a thief is usually a matter of perspective,” King told ClearanceJobs. “The people or entities being exposed usually claim they’re victims of a criminal act. The actors themselves usually claim to be acting with the purest motives and intents.”
Sometimes it is very much a matter of perspective. This is certainly the case with Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who publicly leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013. As his disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs, which prompted discussions on national security and individual privacy, he has earned significant praise as well as condemnation.
“He may be looked at as a hero, but if he were to come (back) to the United States, he would be arrested for disclosing classified information,” said Ken Gray, senior lecturer in the criminal justice department at the University of New Haven.
“Snowden did enormous damage to the U.S. government with his disclosures,” Gray told ClearanceJobs, adding that unlike other whistleblowers, Snowden didn’t follow the proper procedures for addressing the problem he found.
There are those mechanisms in place, including Presidential Policy Directive 19 (PPD-19), Intelligence Community Directive 120 (ICD-120) and other applicable statutes for those in Snowden’s position to disclose waste, fraud, or abuse to the government. Snowden didn’t take that route and instead leaked the information to the media.
“There is a system set up for those in the intelligence [community] to report it to the Office of the Inspector General,” added Gray. “If you disclose classified information to someone who doesn’t have the clearance or the need to know, you are in essence violating U.S. law. Instead you can report the information through channels with the PPD-19. Snowden’s actions instead did damage to national security, but had he reported through the proper channels to the office of the inspector general it could have been handled without any problems.”
Too Much Information?
Another now “infamous” example of whistleblowing is the “Pentagon Papers,” which revealed that the U.S. had secretly enlarged the scope of its actions in the Vietnam War. The papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force, for the United States Department of Defense (DoD), were released by Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the study.
The papers demonstrated that the Johnson Administration had lied to the public as well as Congress about the state of the war. However, even those revelations, which were published by The New York Times, didn’t actually protect Ellsberg.
“After the Pentagon Papers were published, Daniel Ellsberg was formally accused of conspiracy, espionage, and theft of government property, but those charges were dropped after investigators discovered that the Nixon White House was attempting to smear Ellsberg,” explained King. “The scope of the information revealed is also a contributing factor. Ellsberg was an intelligence analyst and was careful about what documents he gave to the media.”
In contrast, Edward Snowden copied and gave a massive number of files to WikiLeaks, which in turn revealed the information publicly.
“Much of that material supported Snowden’s contention that the NSA and other U.S. government agencies were indiscriminately collecting information about citizens and organizations but he also disclosed British and Australian government information,” noted King. “Given current circumstances, I doubt that Snowden’s acts will ever be resolved as clearly as Daniel Ellsberg’s.”
A Fine Line
After 9/11, whistleblowers have disclosed information about the defense and intelligence community, and other interrogation programs that could fall into the domain of “violation of the law” or “abuse of power.” As a result, the perspective between a whistleblower and illegal disclosure of classified information could remain blurred.
“There may be little difference,” said Morgan. “It is just the degree of risk a person wishes to take and the facts about what the government or agency is doing. At times, it is only after the fact that we are all able to decide the person was ‘justified’ in telling Americans what their government is doing since, in the end, we may find that the government was indeed wrong and behaving badly.”
In other cases, we find that the person who disclosed information on their own and not through the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) channels have put more lives at risk by doing what they thought was right – but something that was not well thought through or consulted to within the organization, warned Morgan.
“In the world of intelligence, it can be very difficult to know the ramifications of an action,” he added. “I support the WPA and – as frustrating as it might be to tolerate the amount of time going through an official process might take – it is a pretty good mechanism.”