Are Whistleblowers Heroes or Traitors?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Getty / Carl Court
*Updated 2019
Whistleblowers have gained unqualified hero status in American popular culture. Thousands of editorials have been penned hailing the likes of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange as defenders of democracy. Are whistleblowers really the silver bullet for governmental and corporate accountability? Below, let’s explore some reasons for how whistleblowers improve society, and how they disrupt it.



Whistleblowers are traitors.


Whistleblowers’ motives can be murky.

Whistleblowers have a wide range of motives, and, surprisesurprise, they aren’t strictly altruistic. Corporate whistleblowers are offered handsome bounties for reporting corporate fraud to the Securities and Exchange Commission. With the lure of multi-million-dollar payouts, it is little wonder that whistleblowers prefer to do reconnaissance for the government than to push for reform from within their organizations. Whistleblowing can also be politically or personally motivated.  After spending time with infamous Julian Assange, filmmaker Alex Gibney noted that the WikiLeaks founder was perpetually focused on “personal slights” and “payback.” That Assange has used his leak platform to further his own political viewpoints and even to influence politics is hardly in question. WikiLeaks and its classified “data dumping” has shown that it is more concerned with making news than reporting it, which redefines the point of whistleblowing.


Whistleblowers undermine national security.

When Edward Snowden signed on to be an NSA security contractor, he knew he would be made privy to state secrets employed to protect and advance the national interest. More than betraying his personal promise not to share these secrets, he compromised the agency’s ability to do its job by disclosing operating procedures and vulnerabilities. This information led state and non-state actors, including Google, to redouble their efforts to prevent breeches. More worrying are reports that terror groups began altering their communication methods to neutralize the intelligence gathering tactics specified in Snowden’s disclosures. Without the ability to collect information, intelligence agencies simply cannot do their job.


Whistleblowers fuel vigilantism.  

Hollywood glorifies whistleblowers. Oliver Stone’s Snowden delivers a sympathetic (and wildly paranoid) rendition of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of classified NSA documents. Julian Assange receives the same hero’s treatment in The Fifth Estate. The image of whistleblower as hero clouds the fact that whistleblowers are people who take power derived from legitimate offices and appropriate it to their cause. Snowden deemed himself wiser than publicly elected officials and their deputies to set national security policy. Assange knowingly endangered countless government operatives and informants when he refused to redact their names from leaked reports, and defended his actions by calling those named criminal. Not to mention, Assange played a key role in interfering in the US 2016 presidential elections, interrupting democracy instead of championing it. Whistleblowers are not elected officials, they are vigilantes with a compute. The romanticization of their actions seems to correlate with a rise in whistleblowing, a practice which ultimately leaves government and businesses less secure.


Whistleblowers are heroes.


Whistleblowers are motivated by loyalty.

Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins didn’t blow her whistle in public (not initially, at least) – she blew it to her bosses. Watkin’s memos to the company’s founder, Kenneth Lay, point to a loyal employee, worried that Enron would be disgraced by the revelation of faulty accounting. Watkins wasn’t a traitor – more like a sailor helping to bail water from a sinking ship. Another example: DEA agent Celerino Castillo remained loyal to his mission to neutralize the drug trade when he accused the CIA of being complicit in it. Plus, Chelsea Manning felt she was siding with all of humanity by showing the needless suffering of war victims, in her revelation of 250,000 classified cables. If loyalty is the modus operandi guiding these revelations, are they really betrayals?


Whistleblowers speak truth to power.

In your average democracy, most citizens have limited power. As such, whistleblowers are theoretically essential in keeping business and government accountable. Biochemist Jeffery Wigand fearlessly exposed the tobacco industry’s cover-up of its knowledge of the deadly link between cigarettes and lung cancer, leading to stricter regulation of the tobacco industry, awards for punitive damages across fifty states, and fewer cigarette-related deaths. Daniel Ellsberg forced the US government to come clean about its covert operations in Vietnam in 1971, initiating an important public conversation regarding the use of force. Whistleblowers and the threat of a larger, vigilant public incentivize business and government to behave more ethically.


Whistleblowers encourage us to watch out for each other.

Management expert Margaret Heffernan reports, rather shockingly, that 85% of workers see wrong-doing at their places of employment, yet fail to report it. She points out that contrary to popular belief, whistleblowers, the 15% who go against the grain (and the fewer still who report incidences of greater consequence), are uncommonly loyal and committed to their organizations. Whistleblowers point out wrongdoing at great personal cost, and they do so from the conviction that things must be set aright, either for the good of their organization, the general public, or both.  Whistleblowers challenge the 85% to stop accepting corporate or governmental corruption as a fact of life and to start speaking up for ourselves and each other.


The Bottom Line:  Whistleblowing isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The whistleblower is essentially engaged in an act of betrayal (merited or not), and has deemed his or herself judge and jury in matters of the public interest. Audacity notwithstanding, whistleblowers have in many cases pushed society forward, shedding light on pressing issues that directly affect unaware citizens.

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