Many people consider whistleblowers as heroes while others look at them as traitors. The truth of the matter is, no matter what the context of the truths these whistleblowers expose, it is one of the riskiest and bravest actions any person can take. While some whistleblowers went on to be promoted and have high-paying careers, many of them went to jail or were ostracized or even forced to live in anonymity.
If a whistleblower is lucky, history will consider them a hero like a modern day David attempting to bring down a Goliath. But most of the time, they are seen as traitors whose future is bleak and sees a long prison sentence. Here we will look back on some of our history’s most notorious whistleblowers and the different destinies each of them faced because of their courageous acts.
12. Chelsea Manning: Iraq War Logs
Chelsea Elizabeth Manning is an American Army soldier who was convicted by the court-martial in July 2013, of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses, after revealing to WikiLeaks nearly three-quarters of a million classified, or unclassified but sensitive, military and diplomatic documents and military intelligence.
Chelsea was born Bradley Edward Manning, who was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, was an intelligence analyst who published 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.
11. Linda Tripp: Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal
Linda Tripp is a former U.S. civil servant who earned national fame 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 countered against Linda 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 Linda 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.
10. Daniel Ellsberg: The Pentagon Papers
Daniel Ellsberg is an activist and a former military analyst who was an employed by the RAND Corporation and became famous for the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The reports contained valuable information about a top-secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.
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. Luckily, 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 all over the country.
9. Frank Serpico: NYPD Corruption
Frank Serpico is a retired New York officer who became the first NYPD officer to expose and speak out against police corruption back in the 1960s and 1970s that urged Mayor John V. Lindsay to designate the landmark Knapp Commission to investigate the NYPD. The act amounted to payoffs totaling in millions of dollars.
He was well-known for his testimony before the Knapp Commission saying, “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.” Frank Serpico’s story was turned into a movie in 1973 starring Al Pacino.
8. Christopher Steele: Trump Dossier
Christopher Steele is a former British intelligence officer, and a founding director of Orbis Business Intelligence, a London-based private intelligence firm. He gained international attention when he prepared a portfolio about Donald Trump and his ties with Russia. Christopher Steele, who has a broad experience in Russia, compiled the portfolio filled with unsupported claims about Trump and Russia’s possible influence over him.
The reports declared Russian officials were prepared to blackmail Trump with alleged explicit 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. He has since gone out of the public eye.
7. Samuel Shaw: First American Whistleblower
Samuel Shaw was a Revolutionary War naval officer who is considered one of the first whistleblowers in United States history along with Richard Marven. He and Richard Marven saw the torture of British POWs and were motivated to act against Commodore Esek Hopkins, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy at the time.
The two officers were expelled from the Navy and were even sued by Commodore Hopkins with a libel suit. But the Congress defended the two whistleblowers against the suit and established the first whistleblower protection law on July 30, 1778, declaring it the duty of servicemembers to report any act of misconduct.
6. A. Ernest Fitzgerald: Government Waste
A. Ernest Fitzgerald was a U.S. government employee from 1965 to 2006 who became a famous whistleblower while he testified before the Joint Economic Committee about the obligatory cost overruns on the Lockheed C-5 aircraft program. In reply to the testimony, he was fired by President Nixon.
But Fitzgerald continued his whistleblowing about excess government spending, fraud, and waste. One discovery included a contractor overcharging 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.
5. Jan Karski: Holocaust Evidence
Jan Karski was a Polish World War II officer and later became a professor at Georgetown University. In 1942 and 1943, he reported to the Polish government in exile and the Western Allies on the situation in German-occupied Poland, especially the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the secretive German-Nazi extermination camps.
He was also 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.
4. Edward Snowden: NSA Surveillance
Edward Snowden was a computer professional, former CIA employee, and former contractor for the United States government, who copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013. Snowden copied the information as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton and immediately hopped on a plane to Hong Kong on May 20, 2013.
He revealed several global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance, with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments. He then 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 admired by people all over the world as a hero but is criticized by many American politicians.
3. Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard, Dale Bridenbaugh – GE Nuclear Power
Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard, Dale Bridenbaugh who was also known as the GE Three, spilled the beans on severe safety problems of nuclear power plants, specifically those owned by General Electric. Their expose 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.
2. Myron Mehlman: Mobil Gasoline
While working for Mobil in Japan, Myron Mehlman, a Mobil toxicologist told 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 right away.
But 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.” Myron Mehlman successfully sued Mobil under New Jersey’s employee protection act and received $7 million in damages in 1998. He called the entire ordeal as “nine years of hell.”
1. Mark Whitacre: Lysine Conspiracy
In the mid-1990s, five companies, including the American-owned Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), were involved in a global price-fixing scheme for the animal feed additive lysine. Senior executives at ADM were accused on federal criminal charges for their involvement and the officials were sentenced in 1999 to 99 months in prison.
The FBI was informed of 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.
Truly, one thing is clear; the life of a whistle-blower is never easy, even though there are laws that are supposed to protect them. These Davids are trying to put down Goliaths that are even bigger than their country so just imagine the risk these whistleblowers are going into.
How about you? Would you do what these whistleblowers did? It’s a selfless act to expose the evils that put other people’s lives at risk. Doing the right thing is never an easy job but someone has to do it.