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Topeka Capital-Journal: Whistleblowers are First-Class Heroes

June 24, 2005
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by Louis Clark, GAP President. This editorial also appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal. 

"Deep Throat" exposed a deep criminal conspiracy. For reasons that remain cloudy, the president periodically sent out a team of former spy operatives to break into the offices of his political enemies, steal documents and tap telephones. The inept gang failed. Once arrested, they refused to talk and accepted large cash payments for their silence. It took two crime beat reporters, guided by FBI whistleblower Mark Felt, to unravel the conspiracy of such key crime figures as the president, the attorney general and FBI director.

As one might expect, many of the original conspirators and their allies have used the recent "outing" of the FBI whistleblower as an opportunity to call him a "traitor." They have speculated that he broke FBI guidelines or regulations, asserting that he was disloyal to his "Commander in Chief." One would expect defensive anger from the hundreds of people who were either a part of, or associated with, the organized crime operation the White House ran involving members of the Cabinet and their subordinates. Unfortunately, others have also questioned Mark Felt’s motives, wondering whether he was angry for having been passed over in the selection of the new chief of the FBI.

This response is troubling, since what we do know about Mark Felt clearly qualifies him for the status of hero. He saved the country from powerful criminal elements, including Felt’s immediate boss who regularly impeded the FBI’s investigation, destroyed evidence, and provided briefings to those who were actively engaged in the Watergate cover-up. The decision to blow the whistle is rarely easy. It requires courage. Whistleblowers often must decide between violating agency gag rules and following their conscience. If they remain anonymous, they are subject to criticism for failing to stand up publicly for principle. They are also at risk for firing without legal recourse, as was Mark Felt who almost lost his job because he was merely suspected of leaking information. On the other hand, if they decide to reveal their identity, many people will speculate that the whistleblower is trying to profit from their revelations.

In his book, "Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power," G. Fred Alford describes how overwhelmingly difficult it is to publicly expose wrongdoing. Most corrupt and problematic situations are far more complex than is easily understood. Whistleblowers are often unsuccessful unless enterprising journalists, such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are willing to invest the time, and publishers the space, to decipher a controversy and raise concerns to the public. Those who oppose whistleblowers often question the motives involved.

In this way, the wrongdoers are attempting a smear campaign aimed at diverting public attention away from the underlying scandal. Since "Deep Throat" cautiously and effectively guided two inexperienced reporters to the truth about their president, there have been thousands of whistleblowers in corporate America, state and local government, and throughout the federal government. We as Americans have come to rely on their messages to learn the truth about illegal practices, unsafe conditions, environmental threats and even national security dangers. These individuals deserve praise and gratitude, not half-baked speculation about what possible dark motives might have inspired them.

Like Watergate, scandals frequently involve hundreds of people who remain silent, giving criminals free reign for their enterprises. Perhaps many who question whistleblowers are actually defending their own silence. After all, if we cannot identify with the whistleblowers, perhaps we feel better when we make the whistleblowers seem flawed. Now that we know who "Deep Throat" is, we should revisit the lessons of Watergate, chief among them being that no person is above the law and evil triumphs when good people say and do nothing. Furthermore, we should come to the aid of these heroes who risk their careers because they provide witness for truth, integrity and accountability. We should honor those on the frontlines of moral conflict who choose to follow their consciences despite the personal peril in doing so.

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