The Whistleblower Project

A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project

Introduction A Call to Action Whistleblower Basics Voices Best Practices 25 moments that changed history

The Modern Politics of American Whistleblowing

Insiders Valued More Highly in U.S. Society, But Still Face Perils

By Nick Schwellenbach



A Call to Action: Whistleblower Protection Legislation
If passed, these laws would help improve protection for whistleblowers.

Whistleblower Basics
The Law and Whistleblowing
Deciphering the laws dealing with whistleblowing is complicated, but we hope this will help.

Whistleblowers and Retaliation
Those who expose wrongdoing can face job loss, lawsuits or even prison.

Leaking vs. Whistleblowing
Can you spot the difference between a leaker and a whistleblower? It may be trickier than you think.

Nine Organizations That Work With and Help Whistleblowers

Best Practices for Journalists
Source Protection and Anonymity for Whistleblowers
In political journalism, there’s a debate over allowing sources to talk to you off the record, in order to keep the access pipeline flowing. Anonymity and the ethics of it can also be complicated in situations beyond scoring political points.

Whistleblowers and Reporters: Trust
Here are some best practices to follow when working with a whistleblower on a story.

Technology Can Help Whistleblowers Communicate Anonymously
The ways that reporters and whistleblowers communicate is evolving. The introduction of secure communications has become necessary as journalists try to protect their sources, all the while trying to guarantee the information is secure.

Anonymity: Not Always the Possible, Nor Always the Best, Strategy
Many whistleblowers want to disclose information about trouble in their workplaces while maintaining their anonymity. However, the vast majority of whistleblowers — more than 95 percent — try to solve their problems internally first.

When Working with Whistleblowers, Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply
Government Accountability Project’s “Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists” details best practices for working with whistleblowers.

Kathryn Foxhall: Good whistleblowing simply needs free speech
During the last 25 years it’s become an accepted norm for government, business, nonprofits and other organizations to prohibit employees to ever communicate with journalists without notifying and being overseen by the authorities, often public information officers. The restrictions are intense, highly effective censorship. The Society of Professional Journalists has made opposing them a priority.

Jesselyn Radack: Challenges in Defending National Security Whistleblowers
War crimes, mass surveillance, torture: some of the biggest stories in modern history relied on whistleblowers in national security and intelligence agencies. They came forward at great risk to expose the truth.

Nick Schwellenbach: The Modern Politics of American Whistleblowing
Insiders Valued More Highly in U.S. Society, But Still Face Perils.

25 times whistleblowers changed history

Sherron Watkins was vice president of corporate development at Enron when the financial scandal broke in 2001. She is considered by many to be the whistleblower who helped expose widespread fraud when she alerted then-CEO Ken Lay to accounting irregularities within the company, warning him that Enron “might implode in a wave of accounting scandals.” Get the full details of Sherron's story, along with 24 other times whistleblowers changed history.

Mary Willingham: An Attempt To Make The College Athletic System Better For Athletes
Mary Willingham talks about why she spoke out about the treatment of college athletes at North Carolina and why — despite death threats from college sports enthusiasts — she would do it again.

Megan Wood: Reporting with Purpose
Megan Wood talks about why she looked into San Diego Christian College’s missing $20 million in expenses and how whistleblowers make a difference in their communities.

Richard Bowen: Blowing the Whistle on Defective Mortgages
While evaluating $90 billion of mortgages Citigroup was buying from Countrywide and other lenders, former Citigroup vice president Richard Bowen tried to warn company leaders and board members about the rise in defective mortgages. In 2010 he testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Here, in Bowen’s words, is what happened next.

Craig Watts: Typical American Farmer Risks Career to Reveal Inhumane Conditions at Chicken Farms
Craig Watts was a typical American farmer with three kids, two dogs, and a barn full of chickens. That all changed though when he decided to show the public the conditions chickens, sold by Perdue farms, were being raised in.

Meet the Project Team

Whistleblowers are critical to journalists; their disclosures can inform the public and help hold the powerful accountable. They can reveal wrongdoing that government officials or corporate titans would rather keep under wraps. Their insights can help reporters ask the hard questions and seek documents and data that can cut through a public relations spin.

But whistleblowers usually aren’t held in high esteem by their colleagues or their bosses.

Thesauruses reveal how many, historically, have viewed these individuals. The synonyms are overwhelmingly negative: “snitch,” “rat,” “tattletale,” “blabbermouth,” and so on.

In the 1960s and 70s, the image of whistleblowers began to improve, with insiders playing key roles in exposing Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the My Lai massacre and domestic intelligence abuses. These insiders’ revelations coincided with the so-called “golden age of investigative journalism” and a more assertive Congress less willing to trust the executive branch.

Whistleblowers have come a long way both in broader American culture and in terms of the actual laws protecting them. In 1978, new federal laws were passed with implications for whistleblowing in the government: the Civil Service Reform Act, which improved whistleblower protections; and the Inspector General Act, which created watchdogs throughout the government that could investigate whistleblower tips.

Since then, Congress has seen the need to improve protections for whistleblowers in private industry and to repeatedly improve laws protecting federal workers. A 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service documents 40 federal laws on the books with whistleblower protection and anti-retaliation provisions that cover a variety of public and private sector employees. Eleven of those laws were enacted since 1999. The states have followed suit. As of 2010, 34 states had whistleblower protection laws on the books covering at least some employees.

(Although there is a proliferation of laws protecting whistleblowers, the average designation of individuals as whistleblowers doesn’t always match the protections legally available. Experts on whistleblower law urge caution before assuming protections will cover one’s disclosure.)

The expanding passage of these laws is one sign that both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum have come to value whistleblowers, at least in principle.

For instance, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 — improvements to the law that covers most federal employees — was passed by Congress with unanimous consent and signed into law by Former President Barack Obama. In the Senate, its co-sponsors ranged from Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine to Democrats Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. In the House, Representatives Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), who often opposed each other during House Oversight Committee hearings, were strong allies who jointly pushed through the legislation on their end.

However, this consensus can break down when it comes to individual claims. As with many matters, information is often viewed through the prism of partisan politics. Individual whistleblowers and their claims are no exception.

Linda Tripp, the Defense Department employee who became a confidante of White House aide Monica Lewinsky during Bill Clinton’s presidency, is a case in point. Tripp secretly taped conversations with Lewinsky about her affair with Clinton — the recordings were used by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to accuse Clinton of lying to investigators and became the basis for Clinton’s impeachment.

Whistleblower or snitch? Americans’ views of Tripp in the late 1990s landed largely based on one’s partisan preference. As The Washington Post put it in their profile of her: “Tripp has emerged as an instrument of political vengeance, or of political comeuppance, depending on which side you are on. Opinions are likely to be strong, without nuance and, sometimes, nakedly partisan.”

Without the press, whistleblowers may have a hard time being heard and achieving any impact. A little more than one year into the Trump administration, this relationship is perhaps more important than ever before.

During the George W. Bush administration, Richard Clarke, who had been a top national security official in the White House over three administrations — both Democratic and Republican, faced intense partisan attacks after he disclosed to the public that President Bush failed to take the threat of Al Qaida seriously prior to the 9/11 attacks.

While there are numerous instances where whistleblowers and their disclosures do not strike partisan chords, this trend will likely continue whenever there are political stakes. Anonymity is one potential solution: keep the debate focused on the message rather than the messenger.

But, the use of anonymous sources creates its own challenges. In this era where talk of “deep state” conspiracies and “fake news” has pervaded public discourse, journalists have to weigh their options. Named attribution may improve credibility with some audiences. But reporters should also be mindful and respectful of their sources and the dangers they face.

In both high-profile and more run-of-the-mill whistleblower situations, anonymity is a shield, albeit imperfect, for retaliation one may face in their career and social life.

But anonymity on its own isn’t always enough to protect sources, especially when national security secrets are involved. The Obama administration prosecuted a number of intelligence officials who were sources for the press, such as Tom Drake, a former National Security Agency official who blew the whistle on a wasteful program. The state of technology, making it easier to track employees’ actions and identify leakers, and a more aggressive posture by the Justice Department set the stage for this surge in prosecutions.

This trend may be continuing under President Donald Trump. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last fall a tripling of the number of leak investigations. While some of these cases clearly have to do with genuine espionage, given recent Justice Department indictments, Trump has tweeted messages such as, “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?)” and “After many years of LEAKS going on in Washington, it is great to see the A.G. taking action!”

In the first weeks of the new administration, Trump’s first spokesman, Sean Spicer, attacked State Department employees who used the agency’s “Dissent Channel” to raise concerns about Trump’s travel ban. “These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” Spicer said. “They should either get with the program or they can go.” State Department regulations state that employees who use the Dissent Channel are supposed to be protected from retaliation.

Although legal protections have come a long way, whistleblowers are still vulnerable, especially when their revelations embarrass and anger powerful individuals.

Journalists and whistleblowers need each other. Without inside sources, reporters can find it more difficult to obtain internal documents, learn about wrongdoing and their ability to ask informed questions can even be crippled. Without the press, whistleblowers may have a hard time being heard and achieving any impact.

A little more than one year into the Trump administration, this relationship is perhaps more important than ever before.

Nick Schwellenbach is the Project On Government Oversight’s (POGO) director of investigations. He has extensive experience working on whistleblower matters as a journalist and advocate. He also previously worked at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the main federal agency responsible for protecting federal whistleblowers.

Next: 25 times whistleblowers changed history