Whistleblowers Who Shaped Modern U.S. History

by Terry Duschinski

Viewed as traitors, vetted for treason, but – Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot notwithstanding — validated by truth, eventually. The progenitor of Harry Potter grasped the gauntlet they encounter: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies,” noted J.K. Rowling, fiction-writing wizard, “but just as much to stand up to our friends.”

Transpose “friends” with employers or government, and you have what we today term a whistleblower, individuals compelled by conviction, perhaps, or possibly treasure-seeking publicity hounds? Time tells.

Before there was Bradley Manning, the Army specialist now sentenced to 35 years for leaking classified military information, and before Edward Snowden, charged with espionage concerning revelations about the NSA surveillance programs but taking asylum in Russia, there was the godfather of modern-America whistleblowers — Daniel Ellsberg.

In 1971 Ellsberg, a military analyst with Rand Corporation, photocopied a Defense Department classified analysis of U.S. actions in the Vietnam War – nicknamed the Pentagon Papers — and released it to the New York Times and eventually 17 other newspapers. The information was most embarrassing to the two previous administrations, those of Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy, but Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, obtained a court injunction against the Times to halt publication of the series. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court where the Times received a 6-3 decision to continue publication. By that time, The Washington Post was also publishing a series of related articles.

Now 81, Ellsberg recently spoke to the Huffington Post and voiced support for both Manning and Snowden. But history has yet to render judgment. Especially with Snowden, and the activities of the NSA, the course of events is still unfolding. Patriot or traitor? Too early for a conclusive determination concerning the motives and actions of these young Americans who have taken to task the government of their country.

Government isn’t always the bad guy. As information here shows, the whistle is frequently blown on corporations over-billing, double-billing or in some way defrauding the government. John Michael Gravitt, a machinist foreman at General Electric in 1984, filed a successful lawsuit against his employer for falsely billing the Department of Defense for work supposedly performed on the B1 Lancer Bomber. He received a $3.5 million settlement.

For crying foul in the face of corruption, whistleblowers, typically, sacrifice careers, risk criminal penalties, and on a few tragic occasions have paid with their lives. But that’s only if we know who they are.

Another famous whistleblower you’re likely to recognize by his alias. Thirty years after the episode and just three years before his death, W. Mark Felt, associate director of the FBI in 1972, revealed himself to be Deep Throat, the Watergate tattletale for Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Other notable names in whistleblowing have gained their fame from Hollywood:

  • Frank Serpico, 1971, New York  city police officer, testified against fellow officers concerning bribes and corruption in the department. Al Pacino portrayed him in a 1973 movie.
  • Karen Silkwood, 1973, enumerated nuclear power plant health and safety issues before she, along with a New York Times reporter and a union leader, were killed in a car accident about which there was much suspicion.  Meryl Streep brought her to life in a 1983 movie.
  • Mark Whitacre, 1992, worked with the FBI as an informant to capture Archer Daniels Midland in price fixing. Matt Damon assumed the leading role in The informant, a 2009 release.
  • Jeffrey Wigand, 1996, a former exec at Brown & Williamson who told 60 Minutes that the company purposely addicted people to smoking via manipulated nicotine levels. Russell Crowe took the lead in Hollywood’s 1999 depiction, The Insider.

The Wikipedia listing of whistleblowers shows that allegations involving surveillance programs have produced rogue informants six times previous to Snowden. The cases extend as far back as 1971, but everything else has come about in the aftermath of 9/11.

Another interesting story in whistleblower history is that of Julia Davis, once a Customs and Border Protection Officer for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). On July 4, 2004, Ms. Davis reported a breach of security at the Mexican border in which 23 aliens from terrorist countries were improperly processed and admitted into the US. When the DHS failed to take immediate action, she reported it to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTFF).

Materials found in the hideout of Osama bin Laden later confirmed a planned attack on that date, although it was never pulled off. But Davis felt as if she was under attack immediately after going outside DHS to JTFF. She claims to have been the target of 54 internal affairs investigations, including a 27-man commando-style raid on her home.2 She’s been accused of crimes, for which she’s been acquitted, and won a judgment against DHS in civil court. Because her case received virtually no national publicity, Ms. Davis has produced a documentary detailing her case.

Publicity was not a problem for Linda Tripp, a whistleblower who almost brought down a president. She’s remembered for her friendship with Monica Lewinsky, the recorded phone conversations she provided special counsel, and preservation of Ms. Lewinsky’s navy blue dress endowed with evidence of something Ms. Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton said never happened. If you’re not old enough to remember, ask your parents.

Few are likely to remember, however, just how entangled was Ms. Tripp. In August 1997, she told a Newsweek reporter she had seen Kathleen Willey emerge from an Oval Office meeting with President Clinton looking disheveled, red faced, and her lipstick worn off. She was called to testify about Ms. Lewinsky’s encounters with the President in a sexual harassment case brought against the Mr.Clinton by Paula Jones. In March 1999, a Washington Post columnist pointed out:

“If President Clinton falls, it will be Linda Tripp who largely made it happen. She coolly trapped her young friend Monica Lewinsky into describing, on tape, in occasionally crude detail, what Lewinsky had denied under oath and was evidently prepared to continue denying.”

While the President survived impeachment, Ms. Tripp was later indicted by the state of Maryland for illegally taping her Lewinsky’s phone calls, charges that were eventually dropped. She then went on the offensive, suing Defense Department officials for leaking confidential information from her employment file, settling for a half-million-dollar judgment.

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6 thoughts on “Whistleblowers Who Shaped Modern U.S. History

  1. Pingback: Tuesday Highlights | Pseudo-Polymath

  2. And then there was that FBI analyst that blew the whistle on our dealings with Al quieda, the death squads we created operating in the middle east, and other various schenanigans, but damned if I can remember the spelling.

    And yet, all this notwithstanding, nothing really has changed, has it?


    • There is a special cause of action called a qui tam , in which an individual is allowed to sue a private party in the name of the government, typically for defrauding the government. There is a whole procedure that has to be followed- essentially the government has to make a decision whether to take the case over from you, and if they decide not to, then you get to continue prosecuting the case in the government’s name. If you win, then you get a very handsome chunk of the verdict as a reward.


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