From Deep Throat to Edward Snowden, decoding America's long history of whistleblowers

'To blow a whistle' is only part of the answer

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A regular feature that decodes political phrases. This week we look at the term whistleblower.

Whistleblower: it’s a compound word that makes up a modest concept. But the term sounds a lot simpler than it is.

If you didn't consider 2013 the year of the NSA then perhaps you’d consider it the year of the "whistleblower." After news broke last June that the National Security Agency engaged in mass surveillance of Americans' phone data, the focus swiftly moved to the man who leaked the information.

Edward Snowden is now a common household name. Stories based on the information he gathered from the NSA continue to come out. Just this week, The Intercept published a story based on the Snowden material that alleges the NSA spied on Muslim American citizens who had no terrorist ties.

Yet, as much as Snowden’s leak was considered a bombshell, reactions to the man himself have varied. He’s either the world’s greatest patriot or a traitor.

Where did the word come from?

The official definition for the term “whistleblower is "a person who informs on a person or organization engaged in an illicit activity."

Not surprisingly, the word’s origins come from blowing a whistle. In Britain, police carried around whistles to inform bystanders of potential danger—much like a lifeguard uses them at beaches today. Gradually, the saying became ubiquitous for anyone who blew the lid on anything illegal.

The term started picking up use in the mid-1900s. Raymond Chandler, author of The Long Good-bye, used it in his 1954 book when he wrote, “Come on, Marlowe, I’m blowing the whistle on you.”

It also appeared in Ohio’s Mansfield News-Journal in 1958: 

“The whistleblower on the $50,000 a month call-girl story was a witch, who tried to tap Bea Garfield, alleged madam, for $250.”

Public recognition of whistle blowing grew in the 1960s. Ron Ridenhour, a journalist and former U.S. soldier, played a central role in spurring on an investigation into the My Lai massacre when he exposed the killing of unarmed women and children in Vietnam. 

Many states have adopted laws to protect those who come forward with private information to protect whistleblowers from retaliation from the institutions that they exposed.   

In the last decade, nine Americans have publicly come forward to expose illegal activity:

  • Mark Felt: Doesn't ring a bell? You’ve probably heard Felt referred to by his pseudonym “Deep Throat,” the secret Watergate source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Information provided by the associate FBI director to the paper helped topple Richard Nixon’s presidency.
  • Daniel Ellsberg: A State Department employee, in 1971 Ellsberg leaked a set of classified documents that later became known as the Pentagon Papers. The documents revealed a history of how the U.S. came to fight in Vietnam and how the government misled the public about the war for years.
  • Sherron Watkins: Watkins uncovered Enron’s dirty money fraud secrets. At the time, Enron was a top 10 U.S. energy company. After identifying financial irregularities in the books, Watkins expressed her concerns anonymously. Her actions led to Enron’s subsequent internal investigation and eventual demise.
  • Chelsea Manning: The U.S. army soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning released hundreds of thousands of documents to the internet site Wikileaks on America's War on Terror. The documents included Afghanistan war logs, U.S. diplomatic cables and videos of U.S. soldiers firing on journalists and civilians.

Where will we see it?

The Obama administration's harsh reactions to revelations by Edward Snowden and others have led some to deem the administration the least transparent ever. Former editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, called the Obama presidency the most secretive one she’s covered in her 22 years in news.

To date, President Obama has ordered eight criminal investigations into whistleblowers, twice the number of all previous presidents combined. Last year news came out that Attorney General Eric Holder had secretly subpoenaed the phone and email records of reporters at Fox News and the Associated Press to try and identity a source leaking national security information to the press.

Regardless of the country’s opinions towards them, whistleblowers are part of U.S. history. When there’s wrong doing involved it’s part of human nature to try to bring attention to it: even when it comes down to alerting the press. Hero or villain, whistleblowers aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: The paragraph regarding the Obama administration's position on whistleblowers has been clarified.
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