Exposing malfeasance by political leaders in high positions is always risky. Whistleblowers face conflicting tendencies. On the one hand they want to perform an important public service by revealing the misconduct of powerful people, but on the other hand, they want to protect themselves from the harsh consequences they will likely suffer if they point out the dishonest behavior.
Allison Stanger has written a history of whistleblowing in the United States. She analyzes the practice as it has occurred from the Revolutionary War era to the Trump era when leaders have been held accountable for their dishonesty in efforts to protect American freedom. She notes that because of the rapid growth of technology and the increasing privatization of the military and other government functions in the United States, whistleblowing has become more difficult and more personally costly to those who disclose the wrongdoing.
The origin of the term “whistleblower” is unclear. The author reports she found the term officially used in newspapers as early as 1970. In a late 1973 edition of “Public Administration Review,” “whistleblower” is defined as “turning over evidence of organizational malfeasance to the media and interested parties.” However, what Stanger identifies as the world’s first whistleblower protection law (although not called that at the time) was passed by the Continental Congress in July 1778, in response to inappropriate actions taken by George Washington’s first naval chief, Commodore Esek Hopkins. Hopkins’ critics objected to his torture of British prisoners of war and his failure to follow orders. The Commodore had two of his critics arrested and sued others for libel, but Congress stripped Hopkins of his commission and proclaimed, “It is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of the states, which may come to their knowledge.”
During the Civil War, profiteers made fortunes by selling the military bullets filled with sawdust, shoes made of paper and uniforms without buttons or buttonholes. Some of the ships delivered to the Navy were shoddily constructed of rotten wood and were not seaworthy. When these scandalous acts were reported Congress passed additional laws to protect the whistleblowers, but many were still deemed disloyal, stripped of their naval assignments and their lives ruined.
The heart of the book addresses contemporary whistleblowers who exposed governmental abuse of the Internet. The U.S. government employs hundreds of thousands of people to spy on U.S. citizens, at an annual cost to taxpayers of $50 billion a year. Recent well-known examples include Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who exposed the vulnerability of top-secret information to computer hacking and the unlimited access the government has to private citizens’ personal data. Although these cases are quite different, the outcome is the same. Both men have been accused of disloyalty and have had to leave their country or face imprisonment.
The hypocrisy of government action against whistleblowers is alarming. Edward Snowden has been tagged a traitor but, General David Petraeus walks free, even though he mishandled top secret information and delivered classified “black books” to his mistress who was co-author of his autobiography.
A recent study found, “Federal whistleblowers were roughly nine times more likely to be fired in 2010 than they were in 1992.” Stanger quotes historian Richard White: “Gilded Age reformers decried corruption. Today, plagued by financial scandals, we seem both fearful of corruption and resigned to it. We seem uncertain about who it actually hurts and what difference it ultimately makes. The Republic seems perpetually corrupted, but instead of being outraged, we are not sure it matters.”
“Whistleblowers” is a disturbing, thought-provoking examination of a very difficult ethical dilemma: “Do I reveal corruption for the sake of democracy?” or “Do I ignore corruption to protect myself and my family?” Stanger’s chronicle of political whistleblowing incidents is an effective means of conveying this piece of U.S. history and a sad commentary on just how corrupt United States’ politics has been and is.