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Tom Mueller: Whistleblowers say aloud what many of us think in silence

By Tom Mueller Special to the Washington Post

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 truth-tellers. 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.

Tom Mueller is the author of “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.”