Many people view whistleblowers as heroes. Others look upon them as traitors. The truth of the matter is, no matter what the context of the truths these individuals reveal, it is one of the riskiest and bravest actions a person can take.
Traitors, Or Heroes?
If a whistleblower is lucky, history will view them as a hero; a proverbial David attempting to bring down a giant Goliath. But many times, they are viewed as traitors whose future involves a lengthy prison sentence. Here we will look back on some of our history’s most notorious whistleblowers and the different fates each of them experienced because of their actions.
Chelsea Manning – Iraq War Logs
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning is an American Army soldier who was convicted in June 2013 under the Espionage Act after disclosing over three million documents related to sensitive and/or classified diplomatic and military intelligence.
Manning, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, was an intelligence analyst who released the information to WikiLeaks in 2010. The leaks included videos of the 2012 airstrike in Baghdad, a 2009 Granai airstrike in Afghanistan, over 251,000 diplomatic cables, and over 480,000 Army reports known as the Iraq War Logs. Manning was sentenced to a 35-year term in a maximum security prison although her sentence was commuted by President Obama on January 17, 2017.
Christopher Steele – Trump Dossier
Former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele gained international attention when he prepared a dossier about Donald Trump and his ties with Russia. Mr. Steele, who has extensive experience in Russia, compiled the dossier filled with unsubstantiated claims about Trump and Russia’s apparent influence over him.
The reports claimed Russian officials were prepared to blackmail Trump with alleged sex tapes in addition to bribery about his business deals in the country. Trump has denied all allegations that the Russians worked to get the billionaire elected during the 2016 election. Mr. Steele has since gone underground and questions about the legitimacy of Trump’s election continue to arise.
Linda Tripp – Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal
Linda Tripp gained national notoriety when she blew the whistle on the perjury of Monica Lewinsky and the misconduct of Bill Clinton during the Paula Jones civil rights lawsuit.
The Clinton Administration retaliated against Tripp, which turned into a successful lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice, who released information from her security and employment files to the news media. The action was done in strict violation of the Privacy Act of 1974, and Tripp settled with the government in 2003. She received back pay, as well as a retroactive promotion, and was finally cleared to become an employee of the federal government again.
Harry Markopolos – Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme
Markopolos’ name is relatively unknown, but his investigations have contributed to the disclosure of the largest Ponzi scheme in United States history. As an investigator of financial fraud and a former securities industry executive, Markopolos discovered over nine years of evidence that Bernard Madoff’s management business had been involved in massive fraud and alerted the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2000, 2001, and 2005.
Madoff was finally found out in 2008 after his sons contacted the FBI and sentenced to 150 years in prison in 2009. Markopolos’ book No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller was finally published in 2010 and contained harsh criticism of the SEC for ignoring the information and the tragic events that followed involving Madoff’s victims, including suicide.
Edward Snowden – NSA Surveillance
Edward Snowden gained international attention when he leaked classified information he obtained from the National Security Agency about the United States’ global surveillance programs. Snowden copied the information as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton and immediately hopped on a plane to Hong Kong on May 20, 2013.
Snowden gave the information to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill before the documents were made available in The Guardian and The Washington Post. The whistleblower is currently living in exile in Moscow and has just had his short-term visa extended. He has been praised by many across the world as a hero while he continues to be vilified by many American politicians.
Samuel Shaw – First American Whistleblower
Shaw was a Revolutionary War naval officer who is considered one of the first whistleblowers in United States history. He and fellow officer Richard Marven witnessed the torture of British POWs and were inspired to act against Commodore Esek Hopkins, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy at the time.
The two were dismissed from the Navy and were even sued by Commodore Hopkins in a libel suit. Congress defended the two whistleblowers against the suit and enacted the first whistleblower protection law on July 30, 1778, declaring it the duty of servicemembers to report any act of misconduct.
Smedley Butler – Business Plot
Butler was a retired United States Marine Corps Major General as well as a two-time Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. Butler let the House of Representatives know of a fascist coup d’état against President Franklin D. Roosevelt by U.S. business and banking interests who were planning mobster-style hits on behalf of corporations and their interests, known as the “Business Plot.”
In his book entitled War Is Racket, Butler describes the actions in detail. He retired and became an activist against American imperialism and at the time of his death he was the most decorated Marine in United States history.
Jan Karski – Holocaust Evidence
Jan Karski was a Polish World War II officer who became part of the first resistance against the Third Reich in occupied Europe. In 1942, Karski began reporting to the Polish, American, and British governments about the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto and the atrocities that were being committed against Polish Jews.
He was responsible for smuggling a microfilm out of Poland that contained detailed information about the extermination of European Jews in Poland and the concentration camps themselves. After the war, he became an American citizen and earned his Ph.D. before becoming a professor at Georgetown University, with one of his students being a young Bill Clinton.
Daniel Ellsberg – The Pentagon Papers
Ellsberg was a former military analyst who was an employee of the RAND Corporation and became famous with the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The photocopies of the reports contained valuable information concerning the lack of ability of the American military to win the Vietnam War.
He was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, in addition to other charges of theft and conspiracy with a possible maximum sentence of 115 years. Thankfully, due to misconduct and the illegal obtainment of information, all charges were dismissed on May 11, 1973. He continues his political activism to this day giving lectures across the country.
Frank Serpico – NYPD Corruption
Frank Serpico is a retired New York officer who became the first NYPD cop to step forward and speak out against police corruption in the 1960s and 1970s that amounted to payoffs totaling in the millions of dollars.
He was famously known for his testimony before the Knapp Commission stating, “I was made to feel that I had burdened them with an unwanted task. The problem is that the atmosphere does not yet exist… in which an honest police officer can act… without fear of ridicule or reprisal from fellow officers.” Serpico’s story was turned into a movie in 1973 starring Al Pacino.
Perry Fellwock – NSA Surveillance (1971)
Fellwock was a former NSA analyst who discovered the existence of a global surveillance network by the National Security Agency when the group was extremely small and not well-known. Inspired by Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers, Fellwock reported to Ramparts Magazine in 1971 that the NSA had a much larger budget than the CIA.
Due to the whistleblowing, the United States Senate Church Committee was able to introduce and pass legislation to put an end to the NSA spying on American citizens. However, The Patriot Act has since revived those programs at a much more extensive level. Fellwock is considered the first NSA whistleblower in American history.
Mark Felt – Watergate
Felt was Deputy Director of the FBI until his retirement 1973, and had more access to information on the Committee to Re-Elect the President than most people. He contacted Bob Woodward who reported the information regarding the wiretapping of the Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. He used a secret code to contact Bob Woodward to meet in their secret location.
The information ultimately forced Richard Nixon to resign as president. Felt kept his identity secret for over 30 years before he admitted to being the source known as “Deep Throat” for the Washington Post journalists in 2005. He is undoubtedly one of the most famous whistleblowers of all time.
A. Ernest Fitzgerald – Government Waste
Fitzgerald became a famous whistleblower while he was testifying before the Joint Economic Committee about obligatory cost overruns on the Lockheed C-5 aircraft program. In response to the testimony, he was fired by President Nixon.
Fitzgerald continued his whistleblowing about excess government spending, fraud, and waste. One discovery included a contractor over-charging the Air Force; $400 for hammers and $600 for toilet seats. He was a key person in the passage of the Civil Reform Act of 1978 that led to the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. He continued to serve a prestigious career in the Defense Department until his retirement in 2006.
Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard, Dale Bridenbaugh – GE Nuclear Power
Known as the GE Three, Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard, Dale Bridenbaugh blew the whistle on severe safety problems of nuclear power plants, specifically those owned by General Electric. Their disclosures coincided with their resignations from the company, and they became consultants about the nuclear power industry after starting their own firm called MHB Technical Associates.
The three men participated in many Congressional hearings related to nuclear power, and served as consultants for the film The China Syndrome. Their work is praised as an “exemplary instance of whistleblowing” by the Illinois Institute of Technology and has led to an overhaul in reporting throughout the nuclear energy industry.
Duncan Edmonds – Canadian Government
Edmonds is a Canadian businessman, politician, consultant, and lobbyist who was involved in one of the more peculiar instances of whistleblowing in any country. While serving as senior policy advisor to Defense Minister Robert Coates, Edmonds noticed Coates visiting a strip club in West Germany. Although many politicians and businessmen frequent strip clubs on official business trips, not many of them do so while carrying NATO documents related to national security.
Edmonds was far from praised for his efforts, and was blacklisted from the Canadian government while the Tories were in power. He continued his work on international relations and served as a professor and Chairman of Canadian Studies at Yale University.
Mordechai Vanunu – Israeli Nuclear Weapons Program
Vanunu, also known as John Crossman, was an Israeli nuclear technician who revealed information about a clandestine nuclear weapons program within his country to the British press in 1986. He was tricked into traveling to Italy by an Israeli Mossad agent who drugged him and transported him back to Israel.
Out of his 18 years in prison, Vanunu spent the first 11 in solitary confinement. He was released in 2004 and was under strict scrutiny about what he was allowed to do and say, eventually getting arrested several more times. He is known throughout the world as a whistleblower and peace activist. In Israel, he is considered a traitor.
Myron Mehlman – Mobil Gasoline
While working for Mobil in Japan, this Mobil toxicologist informed his superiors that the gasoline being sold in Japan contained benzene, a chemical compound in crude oil known to cause cancer and other fatal diseases at high levels, which was in excess of 5% and needed to be reduced immediately.
When he returned to the United States, he was immediately fired for “misusing company personnel and supplies to promote his wife’s scientific publishing business.” Mehlman successfully sued Mobil under New Jersey’s employee protection act and received $7 million in damages in 1998. He referred to the entire ordeal as “nine years of hell.”
Arnold Gundersen – Nuclear Energy Services
Gundersen found radioactive material in an accounting safe at his NES office in Danbury, Connecticut where he was a senior vice president. Three weeks after reporting the material, he was fired. Gundersen was the subject of phone calls in the middle of the night for over three years after the incident and was unable to obtain a job in the same field.
He believes he was blacklisted for doing the right thing. Nuclear Energy Services even filed a $1.5 million defamation suit against Gundersen, which was settled out of court. After the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a report noting irregularities at Nuclear Energy Services, it concluded they had violated their own regulations by giving the company their business.
Mark Whitacre – Lysine Conspiracy
In the mid-1990s, five companies, including the American-owned Archer Daniels Midland, were involved in a global price-fixing scheme for the animal feed additive lysine. Senior executives at ADM were indicted on federal criminal charges for their involvement and officials were sentenced in 1999 to 99 months in prison.
The FBI was alerted to the scheme by Mark Whitacre after his wife threatened to blow the whistle if he did not. During his undercover operations with the FBI, Whitacre compiled hundreds of hours of audio and video in what was the largest price-fixing case prior to 1996. The story was turned into the film called The Informant starring Matt Damon as Whitacre.
Frederic Whitehurst – FBI Laboratory
Whitehurst was a chemist at the FBI and was considered the foremost expert on explosives residue. The scientist detailed severe flaws and lack of scientific standards in the FBI laboratory that was involved in some of the most high-profile cases in United States history, including the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing cases.
His revelations led to a vast overhaul of standards within the Bureau and he was involved in a case that claimed whistleblower retaliation, which he won. He received a settlement of over $1.6 million. Today, Whitehurst is the director of the FBI Oversight Project of the National Whistleblower Center.