Defeating fraud. Fighting corruption. Exposing graft.
They sound like something from a superhero’s “to-do” list. But it’s the work of a self-selected group of individuals who break the ranks of military, medical, corporate and government hierarchy to shine a light on wrongdoing.
The whistleblower has often have been the catalyst for massive social and legal change for the better. Are they traitors? Are they heroes? There are no easy answers. Malcontents with axes to grind can cause a lot of damage burning bridges and slinging mud on their former employers. But at several points in our nation’s history, brave men and women refused to play ball when their team was breaking the rules.
Whistleblowing is big news. Last month, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced cash rewards for corporate informants who help expose illegal business activity. Military whistleblowers are getting Congressional help via a bill that ensures sex abuse victims won’t face retaliation when they report assault. And just this month, new whistleblower protections for Defense Department subcontractors took effect when The National Defense Authorization Act made it easier for DoD workers to report waste and fraud.
From America’s history books to its headlines, here are a few of the biggest names in whistleblowing in our country’s past and present:
A 29-year-old systems administrator with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton has made the biggest news of 2013. The firm contracts with the National Security Agency, so Snowden had access to records showing that a NSA program secretly monitors the phone and Internet records of citizens and foreigners. Whether or not he is a true “whistleblower” is up for debate. Some say he is a more of a “leaker,” rather than someone exposing corruption or illegal activity. Whether you agree with that assessment may depend on whether or not you believe the NSA surveillance is wrong.
In 2001, Watkins was a high-level executive at the Enron Corporation. She found accounting irregularities and alerted the CEO, who launched an investigation. The problem was the investigation was fixed. Congress eventually investigated, and Watkins was called to testify. When executive corruption was discovered, the company filed for bankruptcy and eventually terminated 4,000 employees. Watkins quit a year later, saying she was harassed at work for her role in uncovering the scandal.
In 1971, Ellsberg was the military analyst who leaked documents proving the government was misleading the public about the war in Vietnam. When The New York Times broke the story, the “Pentagon Papers” turned the tide of public opinion on the war.
When a 25-year-old former Army intelligence analyst approached WikiLeaks with what would prove to be the largest trove of confidential U.S. military data in history, a chain of events started. Like Ellsberg’s leak, the end result was a critical revaluation of American war policy, this time with the Iraq and Afghan wars. Pfc. Manning is currently facing trial and could spend the rest of his life behind bars for larceny, aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act.
An internal auditor at WorldCom, Cooper unearthed the largest case of accounting fraud in U.S. history. The telecommunications company was inflating its earnings by billions. She reported her findings to her boss, starting a chain reaction that led to 17,000 employees losing their jobs. She is now a consultant who shares her experiences in businesses and schools.
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