We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

On whistleblowers

High-level whistleblowers know when they come forward that they’re sacrificing their national security clearance, likely their jobs, and quite possibly their freedom. Set aside for a moment what you think about the actions of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Imagine you have a top-level security clearance, and you discover in the course of your work evidence of illegal government activity. Even going through the proper internal channels carries risks, and aren’t likely to change much, anyway. (Thomas Drake, remember, actually went through the proper internal channels to expose government spying — he was prosecuted, anyway. He now works at an Apple store.) Would you risk your career, your lifestyle, your family’s security, and possibly your freedom to expose it? How serious would it need to be for your to consider going public? It needn’t even be something as dire as national security. I’ve seen and reported on countless law enforcement officers whose careers were cut short (or worse) when they reported wrongdoing by other cops, or more systemic problems within their police agencies.

Radley Balko.

This is an issue that is unlikely to go away regardless of which political party holds sway in major Western powers. For all the talk about “freedom of information”, “transparency” and the like, the benefits of silencing awkward people are too great. And what is particularly hypocritical about all this is that governments routinely like to lecture banks, for example, on the need for their staff to sound the alarm about would-be money launderers.

Balko has interesting ideas on how to reduce the costs to those who sound the alarm.

31 comments to On whistleblowers

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    The problem is more widely that people cannot be left in charge of policing themselves and their close colleagues.

    As another example of the same phenomenon, on nearly every day of the week, a news story appears in the U.S. media describing some innocent who has been shot to death or brutalized by police officers. Invariably, the officers are found non-culpable, regardless of how obvious the facts are. It doesn’t matter if the entire episode is video recorded, they still get off scott free.

    This should not be a surprise, of course, since the people in charge of the prosecutions are police officers and prosecutors who depend on the good will of police officers.

    Many other instances of this same general problem may be found throughout the state apparatus. Often the problems are severe and have been well understood for decades or even centuries, and yet they persist.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I’ve been thinking lately about a more radical way of treating government corruption: make the fact of his being corrupt an affirmative defense against all charges rising out of the physical abuse of the corrupt official. Maybe with the proviso that the responsible party must surrender and confess within twenty-four hours.

    So – that bad cop, senator, county clerk? Ride ‘im out of town on a rail, tar and feather ‘im, hang ‘im from a lamp post and if you can convince your jury he was a corrupt bastard, you walk. Chancy enough either way to discourage both corruption and vigilantism.

  • Greg

    Perry, where is the documentation that there have been, roughly by your estimation, around 300 hundred illegal shootings by police in the US each year? Please give us a reliable source for this allegation. Or were you referring to just one week in which the average was “nearly every day of the week”?

  • Greg, where exactly did you see this allegation?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Quis custodiet?

    By the way, it applies to the whistleblowers too. Some are honorable people, honorably motivated, who are both correct in their allegations and show good judgment in deciding which whistles to blow.

    Some, not so much.

    I have no intention of “rewarding” Manning or Assange.

    Yet there are others who should be rewarded. However, which is which?

    By the way, leaving things up to “foundations” is no good. Famously, the Ford Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trust are among the foundations that have been subverted to adopt principles and actions completely opposed to the intent of their founders. Does Mr. Balko think he can draft a foolproof charter? I have my doubts … what Man can invent, Man can evade. Or destroy.

    Our nature as human beings, and that of the Reality in which we find ourselves, does stick us with certain insuperable problems.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Greg: There are vastly more than 300 shootings per year. If you count non-fatal incidents of police brutalizing or threatening people, the numbers go way further up still.

    Day after day, we see stories like this. If you look for them, you will see two or three per day.

    For example, 95 year old who needed a walker to move tasered and shot to death in Chicago.

    For example, DeKalb County Police Enter Georgia Home, Threaten To ‘Cane’ Family

    I literally do post two or three stories like these to my Facebook wall every single day. They’re thick on the ground, they’re not hard to find, they’re all around us. If you’re unaware of this sort of thing happening, read the news more.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    I want to be clear about this: this is not an exaggeration. These stories come out day after day after day after day, in an unending flood if you bother reading the right blogs or news feeds.

    If you want to learn more about the general problem, read some of Radley Balko’s articles. You can find him easily enough via google.

  • Fred Z

    The entire problem comes from the concept of a career as a tax sucking, fat arsed, lazy, POS, civil “servant”.

    Heinlein long ago noted “No matter how lavishly overpaid, civil servants everywhere are convinced that they are horribly underpaid — but all public employees have larceny in their hearts or they wouldn’t be feeding at the public trough.” He quite properly called them “civil masters” too.

    Term limits for all of government employees. 10 years max, no pensions and on leaving one lash for each year of thievery.

  • Laird

    I missed that article because, frankly, I don’t read HuffPo very often and wasn’t aware that Balko published there. Thanks for the link.

    As to his point, I think it’s a good one. And, Julie, I would reward Manning, and although Assange is a pompous twit he provides a valuable service so I’d reward him, too.

    How does one go about nominating Edward Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize? Aside from being far more intrinsically deserving than most recent Peace Prize winners, it would greatly annoy all the right people.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Assange provided a really really valuable service, Laird, no doubt about it. He managed to get Afghanis killed for helping the good guys — which, in this case, was us.

    This isn’t Kansas, Toto.

  • Mr Ed

    Perhaps there should be a right of ‘petty impeachment’, to bring a bureaucrat before a civil jury, sitting without a judge, and with right of appeal only to another jury, no welfare recipients or state-funded people eligible to sit on the said jury, and upon a finding of misconduct, the said bureaucrats forfeits office, arrears of pay and pension, and is barred from public office and deemed voluntarily unemployed. No requirement for lawyers to present the cases, just that persons convicted of certain crimes may not bring complaints etc.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Obama promised protection for whistleblowers , but as he has become the most anti whistleblower president in history he’s had that particular promise lobbed down the memory hole.

  • ragingnick

    Indeed Julie, but its easy to venerate the likes of Assange as a heroic whistleblower when you are a metropolitan liberal/libertarian insulated from the real world effects of revealing secrets to the enemy.

  • RogerC

    the other rob wrote:

    This might be of some interest: You’re Eight Times More Likely…

    Interesting, but I wasn’t able to find a breakdown of the nature of the deaths-by-cop. While we all know that a certain number are unjustified (and therefore criminal), there must also be a proportion where the deceased presented a clear an present danger. Anyone have a link to some stats on the subject?

  • Assange provided a really really valuable service, Laird, no doubt about it. He managed to get Afghanis killed for helping the good guys — which, in this case, was us.

    This isn’t Kansas, Toto.

    The US, Britain etc. sometimes cause collateral damage when it attacks even utterly legitimate targets and if we accept that in order to prosecute a war, innocent people will sometimes suffer too, we count collateral damage as something that is regrettable but unavoidable. It ain’t pretty but that is what happens in wars. And if the only weapon available to you to prosecute this war are relatively indiscriminate by their very nature (such as bombing in World War II), collateral damage is inevitable.

    Assange takes the view that he is fighting a war and many of his weapon are not very precise. He nevertheless thinks he has to fight this war.

    I am sure you see the point I am making.

  • ‘Pompous twit’ just about describes him. But so what? When you have to take sides (not always you do), you take the side of the lesser evil – more precisely, the side which is likely to cause you and people important to you a lesser damage. Is Assange a greater threat to the free world than Obama or even Cameron – not to mention all the other World Leaders who are now after him?

  • BTW, I’m not even mentioning Snowden, who does not even come across anything like the pompous twit Assange seems to be. Also, unlike the latter, who seems to have intended to make a career out of this whistle-blowing business, Snowden actually gave up a “legitimate” career he already had. And yet, I am still taking the side of Assange against the likes of Obama – that’s because as things stand now, the real enemy is at home.

  • PeterT



    Seems like if you convince your local congressman/senator that should do it.

    Can’t see it happening though!

    It would be good though if there could be a crowd funding effort to allow Edward Snowden to retire comfortably.

  • Laird

    PeterT, thanks. I’ll look into it.

    Julie, what Perry said. Also, keep in mind that the US government doesn’t give fig about those people, either. The translator who worked alongside the latest Medal of Honor recipient (and participated in all his heroics) has yet to be granted a visa to come the US, despite the fact that he is in mortal danger every day. http://freebeacon.com/the-abandoned/

  • Julie near Chicago


    No doubt lots of people do lots of unfortunate things pretending they’re excusable because they have some noble objective in mind — or, at any rate, some objective that they can market as “noble” if need be. They’re fighting a “war,” don’tcha see. Against child abuse for instance, or many more that any of us could name.

    I have been on the receiving end of such. I would bet several folks here have been. Did you accept the excuses “I meant well” and “I only had a blunt weapon”?

    I am sure you see the point I am making.

  • But sometimes the alternative to not using your blunt weapon is not fighting at all. Sometimes it is just an excuse… and sometimes it is just the way it is.

  • Richard Thomas

    Julie, sometimes there is no perfect outcome, despite what the TV shows tell us. To sit by and accept evil or to oppose it and risk damaging innocents. A difficult conundrum and I don’t know but my suspicion is that these decisions were not made lightly. To act as if they were is to treat the subject facilely

  • Julie near Chicago

    Perry, 7:49 p.m.: Very true, no argument.

    But I do think Manning was at punishable fault. The U.S. presumably has no jurisdiction over Assange, although what with treaties I have no grasp of the technical legal complications. Anyhow, I hold no brief whatever for Assange as The Man Who Aimed to Save Us from the Evil U.S. State, and I consider him a louse for getting those men killed.

    Would you, personally, really want to put your own life in the hands of a Julian Assange?

    Snowden is a different matter, and I think careful reading of my comments will show I did not address his case at all.

    . . .

    Richard, it seems to me that there’s an implication that I have treated the subject “facilely.” If that is true, then I’ll ask you how the heck you know how much time and rigorous thought I have put into to working out my opinions? I assure you, “facile” is hardly the word.

    I also resent what seems to me an implication that I get my opinions (not to say my facts) from “TV shows.” Nothing could be farther from the truth!

    Yes, the choice is to sit by and accept evil or to oppose it and risk damaging innocents. Interestingly, I wrote a piece myself discussing this very topic, long before anybody ever heard of Bradley Manning or Julian Assange.

    The bottom line: When one is in a position where one must make that choice, there are two possibilities: One does what one feels like, based on UN-enlightened self-interest (regardless of whatever lies one tells oneself as justification), and the hell with who gets hurt; or, one is desperately interested to do the right thing, and has the moral self-confidence and the knowledge of one’s own track record of good judgment all around, to risk the damage to innocents if necessary.

    So, having at least a smidgen of moral self-confidence, I accept the choice of opposing evil, or at least unjustifiable wrongdoing, and call a spade a spade in the case of Assange and Manning: I do not hold their apparent moral compass, such as it seems to be, in high esteem. It is conceivable that this judgment is unwarranted and that therefore I have “damaged innocents” in making it and stating it.

    If that be “facile”–make the most of it.

    . . .

    PS. Alisa, if I saw this issue as purely between Assange and Obama, I would send them both straight to perdition and be done with it. (Which is worse? Arguably, Obama…although both of them seem to be unconcerned with the lives of real people.) But I don’t. If Assange’s (let alone Manning’s) mission were to bring down Obama, there’s any amount of stuff he could have “investigated” and publicized. As some genuine good guys have done.

    What did Andrew Breitbart, James O’Keefe, and other such get out of their investigations and whistleblowing? Death threats and the hatred of a large and vocal segment of the populace.

    Whereas Assange and Manning get huzzahs, “martyrdom,” and money (I daresay).

    And, of course, Assange and Wikileaks aid the Sith in his project to destroy America’s reputation and moral self-confidence. If the latter has any sense at all, he’s well aware of that. Nor did I hear The Usual Clamorers complaining about Obama as a result of publication; on the contrary, what I heard was all about — wait for it! — the EEEEEVVVIIIILLLLLLL U.S. Yes indeedy, right up Obama’s alley.

    . . .

    A Bob Cesca at The Daily Banter on 8/9/13 put up a posting entitled, “The Top 10 Most Inaccurate and Exaggerated NSA Stories (So Far).” It includes this example:

    President Obama is fighting a deliberate “war on whistleblowers.”

    This … [is] absolutely one of Greenwald’s preferred frames for whenever leakers or, in this case, Edward Snowden’s name is brought up. It insinuates that the president and the Justice Department are viciously persecuting any and all whistleblowers, irrespective of circumstances. We’re to infer that if you blow the whistle on the government, you’re doomed. This is simply untrue. As Charlie Savage[1] reported in the New York Times, the so-called “war” is simply a matter of happenstance: leftover prosecutions from the Bush years, greater ease of digitally tracking leaks and so on. On top of this inconvenient reality, the president not only signed an executive order[2] to protect legitimate whistleblowers in the intelligence community who expose “waste, fraud or abuse” via proper channels, but he also signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act[3] last year.

    [1] “Accidental Path to Record Leak Cases under Obama.” From the story:

    “…[T]he crackdown [“six leak-related prosecutions in Obama’s first term”] has nothing to do with any directive from the president, even though he is now promoting his record as a political asset.

    Instead, it was unplanned, resulting from several leftover investigations from the Bush administration, a proliferation of e-mail and computer audit trails that increasingly can pinpoint reporters’ sources, bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher approach, and a push by the director of national intelligence in 2009 that sharpened the system for tracking disclosures.

    Even Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr. [link], whose Justice Department has pursued five of the six cases, was surprised by news reports pointing out that the number of cases was unprecedented, colleagues said. He has told associates that he has no desire for leak prosecutions to be his legacy.


    [2] “Obama Order Protects Intelligence Community Whistleblowers,” 10/15/12. Interesting piece discussing various aspects of the Presidential Directive:


    [3] “Obama Signs Whistleblower Protection Bill into Law,” 11/27/12; link to the “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act” in the article:


  • Richard Thomas

    Julie, I must apologize for the TV comment. It was certainly not aimed at you, it just tends to be a hobby horse of mine (TV tends to provide vacuous morality examples) and was more of an aside than anything. I’m sorry you got caught in the back-scatter from that one.

    As to the facile thing, I’ll take your word for it that that’s not the case. But there does seem to be a general attitude for those who condemn these whistle-blowers to assume that they just woke up one day and thought “Let’s f*ck America today” with nary a though to anyone who might actually get harmed by their actions. I suspect that, they thought long and hard about how this would affect others and, indeed, themselves and decided that despite all that would be lost, it was something they had to go through with. I am sure that all things being equal, if nothing else, they’d rather be enjoying their freedoms and careers today

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, Richard. :>)

    I haven’t read anything about Assange that would lead me to think he gives a dam about anybody but Assange. He’s a publicity hound, for one thing, and wants to be known as a gadfly who can shake the earth. IMO, of course.

    Manning … I certainly see your point (and my native temperament, appearances to the contrary, is to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until the headlines read “26 SLAIN” or some such thing), but it really seems that it was not his overriding concern to worry about damage to innocents–and that is the only important issue, at bottom: In the last analysis, the protection of innocents–us!–is what our military is for! And the Afghanis who helped us are entitled to our protection, not death at the hands of one of our military who happens to disapprove.

    Still, if indeed Manning did what he did out of a thoroughly-and-honestly-thought-through moral position, then he understood his responsibility and accepted his probable fate. If so, I would give him marks for honor.

    Snowden … I haven’t discussed him, and will continue not doing so, at least for the present. As I’ve said before, I’m not informed enough to have a worthwhile opinion.

    By the way, I know full well that there are MANY people whose ongoing vocation is precisely the one you describe. But that’s not our topic today, so here I rest.

  • “Let’s f*ck America today”. No, I don’t think that’s exactly what Assange was thinking that particular morning (although it probably crossed his mind among other things) – more along the lines of “let’s make a name for myself as a rebellious freedom fighter”, or something.

    Julie, my point about Assange vs Obama (or Bush, for that matter) was not about individuals as such, but about individuals placed in a position of presenting a threat. I doubt that either Obama or Assange (let alone Bush) are dangerous psychopaths, so let me instead use an example of a pair who may qualify for such a description: if you were forced to take sides at the time, would you have sided with Hitler or Stalin? To me, it is clear that I would have chosen the latter – not because I think that he was a less evil individual (arguably he was far more deranged than Hitler was), but because for all kinds of objective reasons he posed less of an immediate (and arguably long-term) threat than Hitler did. Note that collateral damage is beside the point in this example, because it was inherent in both alternatives. I think that this is also the case in the matter at hand.

  • Richard Thomas

    I do have to say that I don’t really consider Assange to be a whistleblower himself. He is certainly an instrument, possibly a tool ( 🙂 ) but it was not him that ran across information that challenged his conscience. He was already in the position that he had chosen for himself and could be ascribed other motivations.

  • Richard Thomas

    Well, I don’t think the military is for the protection of “Us” per se. It’s clearly for the protection of the state. Now, that may not have been the initial intent of the constitution (2nd amendment, posse comitatus et al) but that is what it has become (other countries militaries really don’t even pretend of course).

    That an oath is sworn to the constitution is a good thing but clearly results in divided loyalties and hard decisions for good and honest men.

    In the question of whether innocents should be an overriding concern… Well, clearly it is an important consideration. But should a corrupt government be able to hide behind the skirts of the innocent? How do we consider the situation of human shields? Terrorists hiding amongst civilian population? Booby trapped children? There is a balance that must be drawn and I sincerely hope that, of this magnitude, it’s something that I never have to do myself.

  • Tom

    Only small poatao really but the UK’s equivalent of the EPA – The Environment Agency has gained a whistleblower …


  • Cheers for that Tom. Link added to our sidebar.