Robert G Kaiser
WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – In recent days, we’ve all been getting a new lesson in whistleblowing, a phenomenon as old as the republic.
It’s a particularly American invention, based on the egalitarian presumption that any citizen or employee has the right to call out their boss or their organisation for malfeasance. Whistleblowing can bring out both the best and the worst in us and our institutions. Now we are wondering if it could also unravel a presidency.
So far, the new lesson is frustratingly incomplete. The Washington Post reported on September 18 that an unnamed official working in an intelligence agency blew the whistle on United States (US) President Trump after concluding that Trump pushed the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Trump’s domestic political rivals and to work with Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W Giuliani and Attorney General William P Barr on it.
We don’t know how Ukraine’s hopes for military aid from Washington might have influenced the exchange. But the whistleblower’s complaint has prompted the House to initiate an impeachment inquiry into the president.
As two new books demonstrate with numerous examples, whistleblowing at its best is a form of public service.
It isn’t yet clear what sort of service the Trump whistleblower has performed for the country, but there is no doubt about the favour he or she has done for the authors of these books: They are likely to get considerably more attention now than they might have a few weeks ago. Crisis of Conscience by Tom Mueller, the fatter and more ambitious of the two, deserves attention, though its shortcomings are substantial and occasionally exasperating. Allison Stanger’s Whistleblowers is a thinner, more academic study and has much less to offer.
Both books remind us that the whistleblower who filed a complaint about Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky belongs to a large and growing cohort of citizens who “(inform) on a person or organisation regarded as engaging in an unlawful or immoral activity,” to quote the Oxford Dictionary’s succinct definition of a whistleblower.
Both authors recount the earliest recorded case of whistleblowing, from the Revolutionary War, but as Stanger discovered by researching old newspapers, the term ‘whistleblower’ is relatively new. It began to appear regularly in leading American papers in the 1970s, in the years after Ralph Nader and Ernest Fitzgerald, a famous early Pentagon whistleblower, attracted a great deal of attention from the press.
What began in the ‘70s has flourished since. Over the past four decades, Congress has repeatedly passed laws to encourage whistleblowing and protect those who engage in it, a category that seems to have grown steadily.
We now have a small industry of groups and individuals who advocate whistleblowing, defend whistleblowers in court and help those who lose their jobs.
Scores of regulations purport to encourage and protect whistleblowers from retaliation, in the private and public sectors. In the second decade of the 21st Century, whistleblowing has become an established and effective American institution.
And whistleblowers have led to the recapture of tens of billions of dollars from lawbreaking companies.
Most of Mueller’s very long book is devoted to original storytelling.
His extensively reported tales of individual whistleblowers and their often cruel fates are compelling. They illustrate how ambivalent society can be about whistleblowers, few of whom escape their episode of truth-telling unscathed.
And they reveal what it can mean to live in an age of fraud – not a pretty picture.
But sometimes the pictures Mueller paints are misleading.
He prefers black-and-white versions to the greys that so often describe reality. His anecdotes feature good guys in white hats and bad ones in black.
Mueller’s mistakes and omissions undermine a reader’s confidence. In her less-comprehensive book, Stanger makes a more serious error, writing that the identity of one of the past century’s most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, was revealed by the New York Times in “its first story on the Pentagon Papers.”
In fact, Ellsberg’s identity as the Times’ source was not disclosed for years.
The timing of the books’ publication may boost their initial sales.
But it won’t help the longevity of these two books that they are coming out just as we are learning about what might prove to be the most dramatic case of whistleblowing of our time, and they contain no mentions of President Trump or Volodymyr Zelensky.