Whistleblowing has been much in the news of late.
The term originated in the nineteenth century, deriving from policemen’s habit of blowing a whistle to alert the people within earshot that a crime had been committed and a criminal was at large. It has evolved to denote someone who calls attention to wrongdoing within an organization—public or private—in which he or she works, usually by going outside the organization.
The word became familiar in the second half of the twentieth century, and a number of statutes have been enacted in the United States to encourage and protect whistleblowers, but it is safe to say that it has never before enjoyed the prominence it has reached in recent weeks as the result of a complaint filed by a member of the intelligence community against President Donald Trump, which has triggered Congressional proceedings to impeach the nation’s 45th chief executive.
The whistleblower in the Trump case resembles, in one important way, those portrayed in Tom Mueller’s wide-ranging, detailed, compelling, and often alarming new book Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud. He, like they, discovered what he considered to be serious wrongdoing and sought to call attention to it. His complaint, however, has received far more attention than any of theirs ever did. Because the accused wrongdoer is the most famous and powerful person in the world, the Trump whistleblower has the advantage, which those Mueller depicts lacked, of having one of the country’s two major political parties promoting his accusation and the nation’s press giving it saturation coverage. The charges of the most celebrated (albeit still anonymous) whistleblower of all time feed into one of the most toxic features of American life—the sharp polarization of its politics. The whistleblowing that Mueller portrays has its roots in a different, but no less problematic, aspect of the country’s public life, one that preceded this presidency and will outlive it.
Crisis of Conscience is largely devoted to portraits of individual whistleblowers. Among them are Allen Jones, who sought to call attention to the misuse of prescription drugs in the Pennsylvania state health system; Ernest Fitzgerald and Franz Gayl, who protested dysfunctional policies in the Department of Defense; Elin Bakhlid-Kunz, who uncovered abuses in a hospital in Florida; Walt Tamosaitis, who blew the whistle on safety hazards in the Hanford, Washington nuclear facility; Bill Binney, who battled against the misuse of billions of dollars by the National Security Agency; and, in a long chapter about the financial industry, in which the author worked for a time in the early 1990s, Michael Bowen, Bill Black, and Gary Aguirre, who discovered serious fraud in the financial institutions in which they worked.
Mueller’s purpose is to present these people as members of an honor roll of civic-minded Americans. Each of them first used the established channels within an organization to report what he or she had discovered, but got nowhere. All then went outside these channels, and suffered assaults on their reputations and their livelihoods that their organizations launched in retaliation for what they had done. While most of them finally achieved some vindication, all emerged bruised and shaken from the ordeals their efforts to stop abuses brought upon them.
Their stories, as Mueller recounts them, are morality tales, conflicts between right and wrong. The large organizations cover up their misdeeds in order to protect themselves and their economic gains; the whistleblowers seek to reveal the truth to the wider public and thereby protect those whom the institutions’ misdeeds are harming. The narratives are also variations on the story of David and Goliath, with powerful forces mustering their resources against far weaker individuals who have at best only a few allies, usually lawyers who specialize in assisting whistleblowers. In the cases the book describes David sometimes achieves some of his goals but, unlike in the original, Biblical version, Goliath always survives.
Mueller depicts his whistleblowers as heroes. Like soldiers in battle defending their homeland, they take major risks for the sake of the larger good, motivated by a sense of duty, a strong ethical orientation, religious faith, or all of these. The author supplies enough detail to make his portrayals credible.
Greed, corruption, and malfeasance, which activated these whistleblowers, have been present in human affairs from time immemorial; but whistleblowing as a tactic to oppose them has become more frequent, the book suggests, in the last 50 and especially the last 30 years. What accounts for this?
Mueller raises the possibility that American society as a whole has become less honest. This may be so. Culture, after all, is not static; values and patterns of behavior do change over time. Perhaps the baby-boom generation and its successors lack the moral anchors their parents acquired living through the Great Depression and World War II, in an era when organized religion had a more important place in the national life than it does today. The author also believes that secrecy within large organizations has become more widespread and common than used to be the case. Yet another possible cause of the increase in whistleblowing, to which he alludes indirectly, is the long-term evolution of the American economy and the American government.
The founders of the United States feared big government. They believed it to be the spawning ground of corruption of all kinds as well as the greatest threat to the political value the thirteen colonies had escaped the British Empire to protect: liberty. They designed a constitution that separated power, trusting the legislative branch to oversee, and check when necessary, the executive. What became the dominant political tradition in the first half of the nineteenth century, the one associated with Thomas Jefferson and his political descendant Andrew Jackson, had at its core the determination to resist the growth of government.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, while the government remained small, the Industrial Revolution produced large, powerful enterprises in new industries—railroads, steel, and oil being the most prominent. The founders’ suspicion of bigness and its pathologies remained, and practices and policies emerged to tame these new giants. Journalists known as muckrakers exposed their excesses: In a series of magazine articles Ida Tarbell built a case against Standard Oil, and Upton Sinclair wrote a sensational book, The Jungle, revealing the cavalier attitude toward food safety of the meat-packing industry. At the same time, the federal government employed antitrust laws to break up the largest industrial concerns and created agencies charged with regulating industrial activity, such as the Food and Drug Administration, which was established in 1908, two years after the publication of Sinclair’s book.
In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal began another trend that has continued into the present: the growth of government itself, including government expenditure, on a massive scale, for a variety of purposes, notably defense and health care. The federal government has grown in scope far beyond anything the founders could have imagined, which has created the circumstances in which whistleblowing has steadily increased.
The availability of money always brings with it the temptation for theft, self-dealing, and fraud; and money supplied by the taxpayers is no exception. The check on such abuses that the founders envisioned, Congressional oversight, when applied to the Leviathan that the federal government has become, can have only a very limited impact. In the 21st century, the amounts of money involved have become too large, the federal bureaucracy too vast, and the operations of its departments and agencies too complicated for the 535 members of the House and the Senate, even with their large staffs, to keep track of them.
Even the federal agencies created for this purpose falter in the face of the scale and complexity of the activities they are charged with regulating. Moreover, they often develop mutually supportive relations with those they are supposed to be monitoring, a pattern known as regulatory capture. As Mueller notes, officials charged with regulating the defense and financial industries routinely move from the government to much higher-paying positions within these industries. This “revolving door” syndrome gives the officials every incentive to refrain from pursuing, in energetic and determined fashion, waste, fraud, and abuse in the companies they hope will provide them with lucrative sinecures when they leave office. Under these circumstances, when the established channels of control work poorly, the small number of people willing to risk circumventing those channels to try to stop abuses become increasingly important. That is why we live in the age of the whistleblower.
If big government lies at the root of the kinds of problems that inspire a few brave souls to blow the whistle on them, the obvious solution is to reduce government’s size. Despite two generations of rhetorical hostility to it on the part of politicians, however, the federal government has continued its steady expansion. When it comes to the size of their government, Americans are, it turns out, rhetorically conservative but operationally liberal. They abhor big government in theory but find it acceptable in practice. Even when the political party ostensibly committed to small government, the Republicans, has controlled the presidency and the Congress, the growth of the government has proceeded apace.
Moreover, in the complicated post-industrial society of nearly 330 million people that the United States has become, it may simply not be possible to downsize the government radically without causing serious economic and social damage. So the federal government will keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The opportunities for abuse will consequently persist and the mechanisms in place for preventing, uncovering, and punishing it will continue to be inadequate. In these circumstances, as Crisis of Conscience makes clear, whatever happens to Donald Trump, the future for whistleblowing looks uncomfortably bright.