Privacy Month Part 2: A Beginner’s Guide to Whistleblowers

Whistleblowing 101

If you’ve followed the news at all over the last few years, odds are you’ve heard the term “whistleblower” or that someone “blew the whistle” on some scandal. It’s an old term we still use to describe when somebody reveals secret information about the unethical or illegal behavior of an organization.

It’s more than simply revealing well-kept company secrets. The nature of these revelations includes high levels of corruption, deception, and criminal activity.

In the United States, whistleblowers have often been government employees or contractors who, after having witnessed criminal activity within an agency, inform the public to promote transparency and accountability.

Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Edward Snowden may be the most well-known name on that list. Having two films produced about him — Citizenfour and Snowden (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt) — the public can easily learn about his story.

While the Snowden revelations are some of the most important in terms of exposing government surveillance, there are many other whistleblowers whose stories should receive similar attention. Let’s discuss their stories.

Thomas Drake

“It’s fair to say that if there hadn’t been a Thomas Drake, there wouldn’t have been an Edward Snowden.”

Like Snowden, Thomas Drake was also employed by the NSA. His time there was heavily centered around 9/11 since it was his first day on the job as well as the justification for a surveillance program titled Trailblazer. Deeply troubled by the unconstitutionality of warrantless monitoring of domestic communications — a key feature of Trailblazer — as well as financial costs for its operations, Drake attempted to file complaints through the chains of command rather than leaking information to the press.

Thomas Drake.

After his efforts were ignored by leadership, he remained frustrated by the criminal activity of his own agency, so Drake turned over unclassified information about what was going on to a journalist. This resulted in an FBI raid on his home and being charged under the Espionage Act. Ultimately, the charges were dropped and he served no time in prison.

The level of government retaliation against Drake has served as an example to other whistleblowers of what treatment can be expected when they decide to come forward, regardless if they do it “the right way.”

William Binney

Another outspoken opponent of the Trailblazer program, William Binney helped develop his own more limited version of data collection and analysis for the NSA called ThinThread. He claimed his program not only cost significantly less but was also designed to protect the privacy of US citizens unlike Trailblazer.

William Binney.

Ultimately his program was ignored which motivated him to file complaints about mismanagement and wasteful spending. Not only was he disregarded, but he also had his home raided by the FBI soon after — something he describes as an act of retaliation. To add insult to injury, the NSA then took a part of ThinThread (without the privacy protections) and used it to create Stellar Wind: a massive warrantless surveillance program, authorized under George W. Bush, and aimed at Americans.

This led to Binney’s decision to resign from the NSA and continue speaking out against the NSA’s unconstitutional activities against US citizens.

John Crane

A whistleblower for whistleblowers, John Crane worked for the Office of the Inspector General at the Pentagon. He was tasked with handling anonymous complaints and grievances like those of Snowden and Drake. In fact, Crane was very aware of their stories and ended up losing his job because of his own complaints about how the Pentagon was treating whistleblowers.

John Crane.

Voicing his concerns ultimately led to Crane being fired from his role in protecting whistleblowers and holding the Pentagon accountable. The allegations against his former employer include direct retaliation against Thomas Drake, destroying permanent records, altering audits, and turning the office’s whistleblowing program into a “trap.”

These revelations only further validate Edward Snowden’s decision to go against “proper channels” within his agency and confirm the suspicions of other potential whistleblowers who are skeptical of taking their own grievances to superiors.

Daniel Ellsberg

A former American military analyst, Ellsberg gained notoriety after passing a collection of classified documents commonly referred to as The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. The reports revealed that US officials, including President Johnson, had been lying to the public about the Vietnam War and America’s involvement in it.

Charged under the Espionage Act, Ellsberg was looking at 115 years in prison. Meanwhile, members of the Nixon administration, FBI, and CIA were caught organizing a break-in to the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist as well as conducting illegal wiretapping against him. This contributed to all the charges being dismissed. Additionally, it was alleged that there was an “Ellsberg neutralization proposal” in which he would be “totally incapacitated” by eight of the CIA’s former Cuban-American assets.

Daniel Ellsberg.

Since then, he has continued his life as an activist for whistleblowing and the anti-war movement.

This list is far from complete; however, it serves as a place to start for those interested in understanding the important role dissenters of corrupt federal and state agencies play in promoting transparency, accountability, and protecting the rights of US citizens. Other names worth researching include John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange. For more information regarding whistleblowers check out