The New Yorker uses the publication of Edward Snowden’s new memoir as an opportunity to explore the state of whistleblowing. Jill Lepore offers this take on what it means that more insiders are coming forwards with evidence of wrongdoing.
Whistle-blowing is very often an upstanding act of courage, undertaken at great personal cost, and resulting in great public good. But the presence of a lot of whistle-blowing—an age of whistle-blowing—isn’t a sign of a thriving democracy or a healthy business world; it’s a sign of a weak democracy and a sick business world. When institutions are working well, either they don’t engage in misconduct or their internal mechanisms discover, thwart, and punish it. Democracies have checks and balances, including investigations, ethics committees, and elections. Businesses have regulations, compliance departments, and inspections. Whistle-blowing is necessary when these safeguards fail. But to celebrate whistle-blowing as anything other than a last resort is to give up on institutions.
An act of whistle-blowing is more than an accusation of specific misconduct; it’s an indictment of an entire system of accountability. Whistle-blowers don’t say, “My company sells drugs that make you sicker.” They say, “My company sells drugs that make you sicker and my company knows it’s doing this and I alerted my bosses and asked them to stop it and they won’t, because they are making piles of money off this scam.”
The piece is focused on Snowden but quotes authors of two other recent whistleblower books: Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud by Tom Mueller and Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump by Allison Stanger.
“This is the age of the whistleblower,” Mueller observes. Mueller, who interviewed more than two hundred whistle-blowers and profiles half a dozen, focusses on the corporate kind, especially in the health-care and finance industries. Stanger sets corporate whistle-blowing aside, declaring it a separate case. But the age of the whistle-blower is also an age of corruption, deregulation, and privatization in which the border between the public and the private sectors is as thin as a dollar bill.
More here from the National Whistleblower Center on problems with NSA whistleblower protection.
Unfortunately, as the NSA whistleblower law currently stands, rights are only nominal. The law provides neither statutory attorney fees nor judicial review of Agency decisions. Additionally, there is no authorization for back pay, lost wages, compensatory damages, or reinstatement for the whistleblower. This is unlike other federal agencies’ policies covered under the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA). Intelligence community agencies are excluded from WPA jurisdiction.