December 2019

When a federal government employee steps forward with information about government wrongdoing, what protections should they get? Does American law do a good job of protecting such individuals? What could it do better?

Recent years have seen quite a few high-profile federal whistleblowers, including, among many others, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner. But the latter two are servingtime in prison, while the former is living in Russia and would face prosecution if he were to return to the United States. All have been called traitors, and their lives have been threatened. Anonymous whistleblowers are more and more easily exposed nowadays, and yet exposure can mean similar penalties.

Every whistleblowing case is different. The underlying wrongdoing may be of varying severity. Collateral information may be released as well, and it may be of a more or less sensitive nature. And each individual whistleblower will be a human individual, with strengths and weaknesses that may look very different when they suddenly stand in the public eye.

This month’s lead essay is by Cato’s own Patrick G. Eddington, a research fellow in homeland security and civil liberties; our response essayists will be Jesselyn Radack, director of the Whistleblower and Source Protection Program at ExposeFacts, and Professor Christopher J. Coyne of George Mason University.

Comments will also be open, and we welcome readers’ feedback through the end of the month.

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Lead Essay

  • Patrick G. Eddington argues that we need stronger legal protections for those who expose federal wrongdoing. He starts with Greek ideals about democratic governance, and with the American Revolution, which saw what might be called the first U.S. whistleblower statute. He argues that today’s protections are insufficient, and he recommends a set of improvements for intelligence community whistleblowers in particular.

Response Essays

  • Jesselyn Radack writes that the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA) is purposefully harmful to those whom it supposedly protects. Because it sets up the Director of National Intelligence as a gatekeeper for whistleblower complaints, the executive branch wins a chance to review and possibly silence any possible complaints. She also condemns the recent uses of the Espionage Act as particularly dangerous for those who expose federal intelligence wrongdoings.

  • When the law doesn’t protect whistleblowers, sometimes the only choice left is to take the complaint to the public. Christopher J. Coyne looks at the role that whistleblowers play in democratic governance and how taking a complaint public might—but also might not—bring justice.

Coming Up

Discussion through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Conference: Cato 2019 Surveillance Conference, December 6, 2019

Cato Unbound: “The Snowden Files: One Year Later,” June 2014

Book Forum: Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, October 2, 2019