Whistleblowers: hero, scoundrel or missing person?

Watergate security log


This probably won’t come as a surprise but librarians like questions.  And we really like answers.  We like finding them and sharing them.  But there are questions that don’t work that way:  What is right and what is wrong?  When do you keep a secret?  Is it ever OK to break the law?  Where should a person’s loyalties lie?  Complicated in the best of times, when you enter the world of whistleblowers these questions really get messy.  It’s not that they don’t have answers, more that they don’t have only one answer.  And as the stakes get higher, often the answers are harder to pin down.

According to the National Whistleblowers Center, we have laws to protect people who “stop, report, or testify about employer actions that are illegal, unhealthy, or violate specific public policies”.  Seems pretty clear, right?  Well…only sort of.   It’s just that no one seems to agree on what counts as being whistleblower and what is just breaking the rules.  NPR reported a recent study that found that 55% think NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a whistleblower while 34% call him a traitor.  And any of you who are good at math will notice that those numbers don’t come anywhere near 100%.  So while we wait to discover Mr. Snowden’s future, let’s meet some other players in the whistleblowing world.  And whether you prefer to read the Handbook, follow the official paper trail or sneak a look at Hollywood’s take, the library has you covered.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s  Whistleblower programs each received around 3000 tips from both private and public employees.  They oversee the laws to protect people when they come forward with information.  For many cases, this might be as far as it goes.  Does the relative anonymity of these cases make them any less complicated or risky?  Or is it true that we are all the stars of our own dramas?   At the other end of things we have some of the country’s best known if not always the best loved whistleblowers who were involved in everything from Watergate, to police corruption, to nuclear power, to farming.  And an entirely different approach to whistleblowing was introduced to the world by Wikileaks, who instead of blowing the whistle on one thing publish any and all secrets.   Even from these few examples it’s obvious that being a whistleblower is a precarious and downright dangerous thing to be, even if they do make a movie about you.

If you want to explore this topic more, or if you have more questions about any of this, you know what to do: Ask a Librarian! We’ll be happy to talk more about it.

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