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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Whistleblowers "Breaking Through Power"

Irvin McCullough, June 03, 2016

Last week, Ralph Nader hosted hundreds of civic activists for his Breaking Through Power conference. These activists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the consumer advocate’s book, Unsafe at Any Speed, by listening to panelists describe how they improve civic mobilization and democratic integrity.

The Governmental Accountability Project (GAP) emphasizes whistleblowing as a way to spur action and break through power. Fifty years ago, Ralph Nader coined the term “whistleblower” when he called for civic-minded engineers and technicians to report corruption. And they responded! With the help of those early corporate whistleblowers, consumer-friendly legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were created and corruption was exposed. Public life improved. If private sector whistleblowers could make so much change, could the same be done in the public sector?

On May 25th, three panelists revealed that it could. Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack, and John Kiriakou shared their stories and discussed the difficulties they faced as whistleblowers.

They briefly outlined their stories throughout the panel: Drake blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s ineffective Trailblazer program that wasted millions of American taxpayers’ dollars; Radack exposed a Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unethical interrogation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh; Kiriakou shed light on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program. All three served their country, all three exposed corruption, and all three suffered reprisal. Their reprisal came at the cost of baseless FBI raids, criminal investigations, an Espionage Act prosecution, and even actual prison time.

The cost of whistleblowing can be high, especially for the unconnected. Breaking through power without power is difficult. While these whistleblowers were punished, they noted “hypocrisy” in the handling of high-ranking officials’ information disclosures, and Drake claimed that “[those with power] get another set of rules.” Kiriakou concurred, citing an instance where Director Petraeus “got a pass” for allegedly revealing sensitive information to the New York Times.

Radack explained the reasoning behind this: “The powerful and politically connected people are never going to get hammered for this, but if you’re part of the unwashed masses then you will.” This underscores the struggles most whistleblowers face. At the top of the hierarchy, those who engage in wrongdoing face little chance for reprisal; but at the bottom, reprisal is increasingly common for those employees who “commit the truth.” Moreover, the panel emphasized the need to respect the rule of law in all misconduct investigations to eliminate that hypocrisy.

GAP’s own Tom Devine touched upon this hypocrisy at his panel on the final day of the conference. He exposed betrayal against whistleblowers – such as in John Crane’s case, where the former Pentagon senior official accused his old office of mishandling high profile cases, including that of Tom Drake – and promoted GAP’s work to strengthen whistleblower protections. Most directly, he referred to whistleblowers as the individuals who keep the power structure honest. They break through power by ensuring its purity. Eventually, he said, “truth turns to power, and David beats Goliath.” Through the thousands of legal campaigns he has wagered, he directly saw the impact that one brave individual can have on an entire system.

It only takes one individual to break through the power. Even if the road ahead is bumpy, GAP and our partners in the Make It Safe Coalition are working every day to ensure that whistleblowers can make protected disclosures without fear of reprisal ­– so that they do not have to fear a power structure greater than them.

If you are interested in getting involved with GAPs legislative campaigns, please contact legislative director Shanna Devine. If you are interested in attending the next Breaking Through Power conference in September, please visit