Why we are in a golden age of whistle­blow­ers

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - By Tom Mueller Mueller is the au­thor of “Cri­sis of Con­science: Whistle­blow­ing in an Age of Fraud.”

Wel­come to the golden age of whistle­blow­ers. It’s a shame we are here but a re­lief that a few brave souls still walk among us. Let’s re­view the record: Prin­ci­pled in­sid­ers have been busy in re­cent years blow­ing the whis­tle on wrong­do­ing from Big Pharma to Wall Street to Wash­ing­ton. With­out whistle­blow­ers, we’d prob­a­bly never have heard about the lead-laced wa­ter in Flint, Michi­gan, Jef­frey Ep­stein’s un­der-the-ta­ble fund­ing of MIT, fraud at Guan­tanamo, corner-cut­ting at Boe­ing and the FAA, or the du­bi­ous deal­ings by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in Ukraine that the House has put at the cen­ter of an im­peach­ment in­quiry.

But de­spite im­peach­ment, it has be­come harder than ever to speak truth to power.

What has led us here? A rise in in­sti­tu­tional cor­rup­tion and nor­mal­ized fraud. If our pri­vate and pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions were health­ier, we wouldn’t re­quire sin­gu­lar acts of courage to halt wrong­do­ing.

Many whistle­blow­ers (and I’ve in­ter­viewed more than 200) dis­dain the term. “I was just do­ing my job,” they of­ten say. That’s en­cour­ag­ing: Healthy or­ga­ni­za­tions tend to self-cor­rect, fix­ing prob­lems long be­fore they ex­plode in pub­lic. Where they don’t, healthy gov­ern­ments in­ter­vene via in­de­pen­dent reg­u­la­tors who iden­tify the wrongs and launch the crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions when ap­pro­pri­ate.

Whistle­blow­ing only be­comes nec­es­sary when or­ga­ni­za­tions be­come more in­ter­ested in si­lence and loy­alty than in ethics or pub­lic wel­fare, or when gov­ern­ment watch­dogs have been muz­zled or eu­th­a­nized.

The whistle­blow­ers I spoke with iden­ti­fied com­mon fac­tors that drove them to break cover. Many pointed to the re­volv­ing door through which high-level em­ploy­ees pass back and forth be­tween in­sti­tu­tions and the watch­dog bod­ies that are meant to over­see them.

Some men­tion the out­sourc­ing of pub­lic ser­vices to pri­vate, for-profit hands, where pub­lic ser­vice and crit­i­cal think­ing give way to a cul­ture that prizes loy­alty and obe­di­ence. Still oth­ers noted a widen­ing cult of se­crecy, of­ten im­posed by at­tor­neys and nondis­clo­sure agree­ments, that con­ceals an or­ga­ni­za­tion from pub­lic view and leaves whistle­blow­ers as the last line of de­fense against fraud.

These changes, of course, have made whistle­blow­ing both harder and more im­por­tant. Col­leagues and bosses typ­i­cally ac­cuse truth-tell­ers of snitch­ing, nar­cis­sism or be­trayal.

Whistle­blow­ers are rou­tinely at­tacked, de­moted to dead-end jobs, sub­jected to crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions and fired. Even those who have halted bil­lion-dol­lar frauds or saved lives are fre­quently black­balled from fu­ture work in their in­dus­tries.

Mean­while, elite in­sti­tu­tions have be­come more sus­pi­cious of truthtelle­rs. Im­me­di­ately af­ter 9/11, many gov­ern­ment agen­cies dra­mat­i­cally limited ac­cess to pub­lic in­for­ma­tion.

“Doc­u­ments were with­drawn from pub­lic ar­chives, gov­ern­ment web­sites were cen­sored or taken off­line, pub­lic and press ac­cess to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials was cur­tailed,” re­mem­bers Steven After­good, di­rec­tor of the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists’ Pro­ject on Gov­ern­ment Se­crecy and an au­thor­ity in clas­si­fi­ca­tion pol­icy.

Be­fore 9/11, After­good rou­tinely tele­phoned se­nior En­ergy and De­fense of­fi­cials di­rectly — not their pub­lic af­fairs li­aisons — with ques­tions, and of­ten got an­swers. That largely ended af­ter 9/11. He says, “There is greater em­pha­sis within agen­cies on mes­sage con­trol. So un­su­per­vised and un­co­or­di­nated com­ments by in­di­vid­ual of­fi­cials are dis­cour­aged and may even be pun­ished.”

Anti-whistle­blower pres­sure in­ten­si­fied with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of In­sider Threat pro­grams through­out gov­ern­ment. These pro­grams, a re­sponse to the Wik­iLeaks dis­clo­sures, fre­quently por­tray law­ful dis­clo­sures by pub­lic em­ploy­ees as crim­i­nal acts and lump le­git­i­mate whistle­blow­ers to­gether with spies and crim­i­nals.

Trump’s re­cent per­sonal ven­detta against the mul­ti­ple whistle­blow­ers as spies who should be elim­i­nated equates whistle­blow­ing with a cap­i­tal crime.

Most dis­heart­en­ing of all, facts, the hard cur­rency of truth-telling, are be­ing de­based in Trump’s post-fact world, a move that can mute the most pierc­ing whis­tle.

Dana Gold, se­nior coun­sel for the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Pro­ject, an NGO that pro­vides le­gal and ad­vo­cacy sup­port to whistle­blow­ers, rep­re­sents med­i­cal doc­tors who since July 2018 have de­nounced po­ten­tial harm to mi­grant chil­dren in­terned in border de­ten­tion cen­ters. So far, Gold notes, those dis­clo­sures have changed noth­ing.

“Un­der any pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion, if the whis­tle had been blown on such egre­gious con­duct, it would have stopped,” Gold says. “Now, although my clients have blown the whis­tle loud and clear, the wrong­do­ing con­tin­ues.”

De­spite these bar­ri­ers, whistle­blow­ers keep com­ing for­ward, be­cause the voice of the in­di­vid­ual con­science grows stronger as fraud be­comes nor­mal­ized. They say aloud what many of us only think in si­lence.

They in­spire us be­cause they demon­strate, through their acts of in­di­vid­ual courage, that a lone in­di­vid­ual, armed with hard data, can take on a multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion or his or her own gov­ern­ment and still pre­vail.

If they re­veal that many ba­sic checks and bal­ances of so­ci­ety have failed, they re­mind us that jus­tice, truth, equal­ity and com­mon­weal re­main ideals we still yearn to live by.

JIM WAT­SON/AFP-GETTY

A protester stands out­side Trump Na­tional golf Club with a plac­ard read­ing “I Love Whistle­blow­ers” as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ar­rives for a round of golf at his club in Ster­ling, Virginia on Sept. 29.

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