The Evolution of the Whistle-Blower: From Civil War to WikiLeaks

The Evolution of the Whistle-Blower: From Civil War to WikiLeaks - top government contractors - best government contracting event

The Evolution of the Whistle-Blower: From Civil War to WikiLeaks - top government contractors - best government contracting eventThink whistle-blower, and you’ll more than likely conjure up an image of a government worker who wants to shed light on an internal problem or a moral dilemma. These days, however, the whistle-blower has morphed from a one-man band to an orchestra of many, sounding the horn about everything from classified information to embarrassing communications concerning world leaders.

In 1863, Congress passed the first whistle-blower law, the False Claims Act. In those days of the Civil War, fraud ran rampant, both in the north and the south: Nefarious contractors sold the Union Army sick horses and mules, defective weapons and food that had gone bad. To prevent this from happening, Congress decided to pass a law that would aid people in recovering what they had lost through fraudulent transactions, by suing on behalf of the government and getting paid a percentage of the recovery.

In 1912, the Lloyd-La Follette Act was passed, which made it the first protective legislation for whistle-blowers. The act additionally protected the right of federal employees to join unions. However, before the 1960s, businesses had broad autonomy in employee policies and could fire an employee without  reason, according to Lilanthi Ravishankar.

Fast-forward to the 21st century: According to Dr. Roberta Ann Johnson’s A Piercing Look at Whistleblowing, after 9/11, patriotic whistle-blowers reported concerns about breaches of security. After California’s 2000 and 2001 electricity crisis, energy-sector whistle-blowers sought to expose system manipulation, and in Congress, auditors of private corporations testified on tax cheats. In the United States, more people blow the whistle than anywhere else in the world, according to Johnson.

Attitudes toward whistle-blowing have changed considerably during the past 50 years in corporate America, from the early days when loyalty to the company was the rule, to the present time when public outrage about corporate misconduct has created a more encouraging milieu for whistle-blowing, according to Ravishankar.

And with the birth of Internet, whistle-blowers found a new avenue for exposing wrongdoings. Today, a plethora of websites offer guidance and information for whistle-blowers. Those serving as repositories for secrets amount to dozens, the most notable being WikiLeaks, Cryptome and Infowars.

Other sites act more like watchdogs, protecting and fighting for whistle-blowers’ rights, including Government Accountability Project, and those on the federal levels such as Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

The advancement in technology has also facilitated whistle-blowing. “Four decades ago, using a photocopier, a leaker might have needed a great many reams of paper and a tractor-trailer,” The New York Times pointed out.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures, prominent leaders have called for tougher stance against whistle-blowers who divulge classified secrets, while those on the other side of the fence claim stronger protecting for those blow the whistle. Government Accountability Project’s legal director Tom Devine said in an op-ed in The Washington Post that “shooting the messenger undermines our nation in the fight against terrorism.”

He also noted the difficulty whistle-blowers meet and how silence can prove to be detrimental to all:

“National security whistle-blowers face a Catch-22. They can engage in professional suicide by operating within the system or risk criminal prosecution by leaking to the media. No wonder so many remain silent. And in the end, the public loses,” Devine wrote.

Last week, the Senate passed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and the bill now moves to the House. Although the current legislation would allow jury trials for employees who take legal action against agencies for allegedly retaliating against workers who expose wrongdoing, it does not protect whistle-blowers disclosing sensitive information in the Intelligence Community.

As seen with the immense attention in WikiLeaks–both positive and negative–the Internet has allowed a new dimension to open up for exposing secrets. The question remains: Will the government be able to keep secrets WikiSafe? It could be a very hard task, indeed, Steven Aftergood of Project on Government Secrecy told The New York Times:

“I do think it“™s true that the large contours of national and international policy are much harder to keep secret today,“ he said. “It would not be possible to conduct a secret war in Cambodia, as took place in the Nixon administration.“

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Written by Jim Garrettson

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