Whistleblowers: Honesty In America From Washington To Trump

Oct 16, 2019

Author and political scientist Allison Stanger, who wrote Whistleblowers: Honesty In America from Washington to Trump, discusses how federal employees who blew the whistle shaped some of our biggest political reckonings, and how the role of the whistleblower has evolved within politics, the media, and national security.

Original air date: October 16, 2019. 

GUEST:

  • Allison Stanger - Political scientist and professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College. She is the founding director of Middlebury's Rohatyn Center for International Affairs. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and also authored the book, One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.

 

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Laura Knoy:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Laura Knoy. and this is The Exchange.

Laura Knoy:
Our guest today says most Americans would say they favor government whistleblowers commending them for speaking truth to power. But in practice, she says, many whistleblowers suffer for their acts, losing careers, friends, even the ability to live in their communities. We're talking this hour with Allison Stanger. She's a professor at Middlebury College and a cyber security fellow at New America. She's also the author of the brand new book, Whistleblowers Honesty in America. From Washington to Trump, it describes the creation and evolution of our laws around whistleblowing and when those principles have been weakened or ignored.

Laura Knoy:
And Professor Stanger joins us from WBUR in Boston. And Professor Stanger, it's great to have you. Thank you for being here.

Allison Stanger:
It's great to be here. Thanks, Laura.

Laura Knoy:
Let's just start off with the basics. What is a whistleblower?

Allison Stanger:
Well, the whistleblower is somebody who reveals misconduct, either illegal or unconstitutional or a threat to the public interests, health, safety, a variety of realms. My book focuses on public servants, but obviously there's all sorts of whistle blowing in the corporate sector.

Laura Knoy:
Well, you call whistle blowing a cousin of civil disobedience. That really caught my interest, Professor Stanger. Why a cousin?

Allison Stanger:
It's a cousin because it's slightly different. Whistleblowers are typically insiders. They have insider knowledge. And they often try to bring that to the attention of the superiors. But they the message often isn't heard and they tend then they go outside. But they're not civil disobedience because civil disobedience are outsiders. What they're doing is saying this law is unjust. So I'm going to break it. So Rosa Parks moved to the front of the bus in the civil rights movement. Just to highlight how unfair, unjust, immoral the law is that separating black people from white people on buses, whistleblowers are different in that they're not necessarily breaking laws, although in the national security realm, it's often the case that they have to do so. But they are insiders and we meet both insiders and outsiders to keep democracy vibrant and and sustainable.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and a big theme in this book is this sort of gray area when it comes to national security. So we'll definitely get to that. But right from the book. So a whistleblower is an insider who has evidence of illegal or improper conduct and exposes it either to the authorities or to the press in government misconduct is illegality or a violation of constitutional norms. What's the press's role in this, Professor Stanger?

Allison Stanger:
Well, that's what's sort of interesting, because obviously the press is in some sense working along with whistleblowers to speak truth to power, to keep keep our elites honest. And whistleblowing is very much connected to the First Amendment. I mean, that's why we see whistleblowing being something important in the nine states since before the Constitution was even ratified.

Laura Knoy:
What's the difference between a whistleblower and a leaker? Sometimes people say, you know, the leaker. And it's it's often not in a positive context.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, you needed to realize that all whistleblowers are leakers, but not all leakers are whistleblowers. In other words, you don't become a whistleblower by revealing secrets. What matters is the content of what you're revealing, which has to be evaluated so people can leak for all sorts of reasons. There are differences in policy and trying to affect the outcome.

Allison Stanger:
But whistleblowers are doing something very different. They're really trying to highlight improper conduct, breaking of rules. Oftentimes the exploitation of public office for private gain. So those are two very different things.

Laura Knoy:
Oh, that is interesting. OK, so somebody can leak snarky emails between top members of an administration, whatever, that's leaking. But it's when those e-mails reveal conduct that goes against the constitution or goes against our laws. That's whistleblowing.

Allison Stanger:
That's whistleblowing. Exactly. And it often requires investigation. The whistleblower just needs to have a reason, a belief that they are aware of something that should not be happening. And oftentimes they get great resistance because people don't want to hear that they're doing something wrong.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and could you talk about that? Because I think somewhere in the book you say that, you know, some incredibly low percentage of whistleblowers are believed. I can't remember exactly Professor Stanger, but maybe 5 percent or something. Why so low?

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, well, it's because just because a complaint comes for it forward at it and is investigated, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's some substance there. So, for example, with this Intelligence Committee whistleblower that's captured our attention in Washington and the world, what matters there is the content of the complaint. It's not necessarily that they're immediately accepted as being right.

Allison Stanger:
What's significant is that the intelligence community inspector general investigated, spoke to some people and thought this was a complaint that had to be turned over to conference to excuse me to Congress. So there are last stages in the whistleblower process. And the simple fact is that most complaints just die on the vine. They never are put forward. Settlement is never reached. And it's pretty exceptional for it to come to the point where there's a settlement or someone's removed from office or you have consequences of the whistleblowing. So it's not for the faint of heart. So suffer all kinds of consequences.

Laura Knoy:
Federal whistleblowers quoting you here are only successfully believed for 15 to 20 percent of the time. And you just said most complaints die on the vine. Should some of them die on the vine? I mean, should we automatically assume that all of these complaints are valuable?

Allison Stanger:
Oh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, people can reasonably believe that something is wrong and be wrong. Right. They may not for a whole variety of reasons. So it really is something that we have to let the facts speak for themselves before we know whether we have a legitimate whistleblower. Whistleblowing can't be what I think it is. That's why I've tried to lay out a really careful definition because properly understood, it's not a partisan issue at all. It's really an American issue. And that's perhaps the most important thing to realize. We're really talking about the facts and shedding light on what is true and what we need to do about it. That's not partisan. That's American.

Laura Knoy:
So the title of your book, again, Whistleblowers Honesty in America From Washington to Trump. That subtitle, Professor Stanger makes me think that whistleblowers are always honest. But you're saying not necessarily.

Allison Stanger:
You know, human beings are really complicated and that's why you have individual cases and that's what I write. Yeah, I try to do in the book. You know, I'm really trying to give the reader a sense for evaluating this incredibly confusing situation we see before us.

Allison Stanger:
People blow the whistle for all kinds of reasons. Again, the motives don't matter. What matters is the substance of what's revealed. And that's that's what's most important to focus on. If we look, for example, at at Deep Throat in the Watergate scandal, Mark Felt, who revealed his identity just a few years before his death. He was Deep Throat, the source for for Bob Woodward.

Allison Stanger:
He had all sorts of ulterior motives in bringing that sharing that information with The Washington Post. He was number two at the FBI. He wanted to be director of the FBI. And those revelations hurt his key rival. But again, his motives aren't important. It's really what he revealed that demands our attention.

Laura Knoy:
That's interesting. So when people say they're only doing this for partisan intent or partisan advantage, you're saying set that aside and look at whether the content of this complaint is true or not.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, and that's the most the absolutely the most important thing we can do, because there's so much spin and noise with a 24/7 news cycle.

Allison Stanger:
And we're all humans are all interested in the human stories. That's what gets the most clicks. So it's very easy to get distracted and bogged down in questions of why someone's doing this. You know, are they a good person? Are they really a partisan? Are they, you know, a deep state, subversive of all these things when we really should be focusing on is.

Allison Stanger:
What are they saying in their complaint?

Laura Knoy:
Let's talk about some of the famous whistleblowers that you highlight in the book. And since you mentioned the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and so forth, talk about Daniel Ellsberg, one of the most famous whistleblowers. Just remind us if you could. Professor Stanger, who he was and why he got in just so much trouble.

Allison Stanger:
Well, Daniel Ellsberg was a top level Department of Defense Center insider who blew the whistle on American foreign policy and the war in Vietnam. Essentially, his Pentagon Papers revealed that what the administration was saying to the American people about the Vietnam War. And again, this was across, this happened across administrations. It's not a partisan thing at all, was that they were lying to the American people about how the war was going. They would say one thing publicly that things were going swimmingly. But the reality was as expressed in, as you know, record in the Pentagon Papers, that it was not going well right from the Kennedy administration.

Allison Stanger:
And so he first went and he tried to talk to senators, Senator McGovern, for example, and other insiders. He even spoke with Henry Kissinger to try to get them to do something about this, to close this gap between public statements and the reality so that the American people could decide whether this war effort was worth it. Nobody was interested. So he ultimately took it to The New York Times and there was a landmark lawsuit. Where were the Supreme Court ruled that that you can't have you cannot censor the the the press under the First Amendment.

Allison Stanger:
So that was a big, big case that set a precedent that the people have a right to know, even when the leadership doesn't want them to know and they want to claim executive power and so forth. But Ellsberg is interesting, too, because. The Pentagon Papers, when they when they were first the first story published with The New York Times. They never said who the source was, they never revealed Ellsberg's name, but once that first story published, everybody knew, the insiders knew that it was Ellsberg, that was the source for the Times. And so he was immediately arrested.

Laura Knoy:
Well, and he kind of fit that classic definition that you gave us earlier of a whistleblower. He tried at first to expose this information to the authorities, as you said, didn't get much traction there. So he went to the press. He was charged under the Espionage Act. What does that mean?

Allison Stanger:
That means that he's actually serving the enemies of the United States rather than his own country.

Laura Knoy:
Wow.

Allison Stanger:
That's what the charge of espionage is. It means that you really are aligned with the interests of our enemies rather than with the United States of America. That was the charge.

Laura Knoy:
Just to wrap up a story there. He says he did not serve something like a hundred years in prison. Go ahead, Professor Stanger.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, no, he was super lucky because the Republicans decided to break into his psychiatrist's office to get additional dirt on him. And that was precisely what got the case thrown out. Otherwise, he probably would be sitting in jail.

Laura Knoy:
Well, let's hear a little bit from Daniel Ellsberg. This is a clip from the Associated Press from the early 70s during Daniel Ellsberg's trial, after he was indicted, as you just said, under the Espionage Act. And it's really interesting to hear this little clip of him from that time.

Archival sound:
This trial will inform the American. Ways that it's never heard before of how we've been governed in the past quarter century, and what censorship and deception don't do a democracy.

Laura Knoy:
So there he is and he's really seeing himself as a public servant there. Professor Stanger, what do you think?

Allison Stanger:
Yes, yes, he absolutely is. And I think he he was a public servant. You know, we can't have a functioning democracy if there isn't some sort of distinction between truth and falsehood. If our government is constantly lying to us, it is not a tenable situation. We can't have our leaders telling us what is true. We as citizens have to decide what is true and for us to decide what is true. We need to know the facts.

Laura Knoy:
I have an e-mail here from Greg in Portsmouth. He's says he's a retired foreign service officer. Greg, thank you. Greg says the State Department has what's called the dissent channel that allows diplomats who disagree with U.S. policy or actions express themselves through formal channels. Sometimes this involves information known only to the sender. Disagreements with embassy or department management or alternate interpretations of events. Greg says Does this constitute whistleblowing, since it is not anonymous and often involves discussions prior to the dissent expression? Greg, thank you so much and it's good to hear from you given your experience.

Laura Knoy:
What do you think Professor Stanger?

Well Greg's pointing out something really important, that in a healthy organization you would have internal channels where these complaints could be could be investigated, discussed. And if leadership is is responsive to their employees, they will make the adjustments internally without having to take it outside the organization. That's how an ideal organization works, unfortunately. And this may be the case at present. The dissent channel isn't working internally, and that's where whistleblowers become really important. So you do have these different steps you can take and and a reasonable person will try to do this by talking to his superiors first. But the response often is shoot the messenger. And so that's why you need whistleblower protection.

Laura Knoy:
Well, I'd like to ask you about that, actually, because throughout the book you raise this theme, you know, shoot the messenger. You say while we Americans say we revere whistleblowers. Good for them speaking truth to power. Often they're treated pretty shabbily after their actions. So what's going on there, Professor Stanger?

Allison Stanger:
Well, I think what's going on there is that, you know, whistleblowing is a really an American concept. We passed the world's first whistleblower protection law in 1778. That's before the Constitution is even ratified. So we celebrate dissent in many ways. The American Revolution was a severing of the bond with Britain because, you know, the American patriots thought that the British were corrupt. They had these ideas of democracy, yet they weren't applying them to the colonies. And so they had to separate to form a new republic that was going to do this the right way. That was going to not have corrupt public servants, but public servants who served the newly United States.

Allison Stanger:
So it's really American in some sense in our DNA. That's in the realm of theory. That's why you see both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate unanimously vote to turn the whistleblower complaint over to court. Congress today. But practice is very different and people, you know, we have to judge people by what they do, not just by what they say. And what happens in practice is when media attention turns elsewhere, the spotlight turns away from the whistleblower. That's when the retaliation starts. And they lose their career, they lose their livelihood. They they lose everything for taking the steps. So whistleblower, my book really tells a story of all these people whose who sacrifice everything.

Laura Knoy:
To keep our elites honest and they have a hard time finding employment afterwards. They're seen as troublemakers.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah. Well, you're sort of you're so someone who's difficult. And and once you go outside the organization like this, you're no longer seen as trustworthy. So you really can no longer have your career as it was previously. Sometimes lawsuits are filed. Bunny Greenhouse. For example, at the Department of Defense filed filed lawsuits and had her job reinstated there. A lot of stories we can tell in the book of people getting their jobs reinstated, but they're treated as, you know, the skunk at the picnic. They're they're they're they're often shunned socially. And even in some instances, like Greenhouse's, people set up booby traps in her office so that she tripped and hurt her knee. So it's not an easy road to hoe. And we should be grateful for people who are courageous enough to to take to make that sacrifice.

Laura Knoy:
So, Professor Stanger coming up after a short break, I definitely want to ask you about some of the whistleblowers that are mentioned in your book. You mentioned that last example. We talked about Daniel Ellsberg. We're also going to talk about whether Edward Snowden qualifies as a whistleblower or a leaker. Julian Assange and his whole WikiLeaks operation and how that plays into it.

Laura Knoy:
Also, I want to ask you about the Obama administration, because a lot of people interested in this topic say that President Obama made life difficult for whistleblowers. And we'll talk about contemporary issues.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. Today we're talking about a new book on whistleblowers. It examines how our founders viewed this concept and how it's evolved given technology and national security. post-9/11. And the book is called Whistleblowers Honesty in America. From Washington to Trump, the author is Professor Allison Stanger and Professor Stanger. Another big theme in this book, Beyond What We're Talking About Before, which is we say we love whistleblowers, but then their lives are extremely difficult, often after the fact. You write that efforts to shrink the federal government workforce have meant over the decades more work being done by government contractors. How has this affected whistleblowing?

Allison Stanger:
That's a great question, Laura. And it it it really plays a major role. Part of the reason I wrote this book was because of a previous book I wrote which was called One Nation Under Contract, which studied the privatization of American national security. That's the increased use of contractors. And we can see this in all realms of government taking the jobs of government employees, often making double or triple the amount for the same sort of work. And government in that in with that privatization phenomenon sort of gets how hollowed out. And you see this blurring of the line between business and government, which exist for two very different reasons. But with this privatization, it becomes unclear what government itself is is for.

Allison Stanger:
You get a revolving door between the private and the public sector in the private sector that we see coming out in a lot of the discussion today about Joe Biden, about what Donald Trump is doing. And I looked at this and I thought, you know, there are reasons this is happening. Some of them are good.

Allison Stanger:
But the one thing that doesn't add up to me is if we're going to have the business of government be business. And those activities are kind of shrouded in secrecy because of both business proprietary and because of the classified information and in the national security realm, then we really are trusting our elites to do what's best for us, the American people. When it's entirely behind closed doors, maybe that's a little naive to trust elites not to act in their own self-interest in advance, their own economic interests rather than our interests as as a country. And I thought, how do we keep our athletes honest? That seems like a really important question given this situation I've just described to you. And that's how I came to the topic of whistleblowers, because whistleblowers keep a lid on leads on as well.

Laura Knoy:
And there is this carve out for national security when it comes to whistleblowing. Why is that so unclear? You even say in the book, Professor Stanger, that, you know, national security does require some secrecy so that America's enemies don't know exactly, you know, where all the weapons are hidden. So go ahead. How does that work, actually?

Allison Stanger:
Well, that's what makes this issue so complicated and difficult to understand, but it's actually not as complicated as it looks. I'm a professor of American foreign policy, so I've studied these issues for a long time. I'm also a tenured professor, which means that nobody can fire me for anything I say. So I'm deeply committed in this book to kind of look, reviewing both sides and trying to determine where that where the truth lies. And the fact of the matter is that to have a productive foreign policy and to protect the American people, we we do need to keep some secrets.

Allison Stanger:
But at the same time, for the sake of security, we don't want to be undermining the very thing we're trying to defend, which is American constitutional democracy. So there is this tension between keeping the secrets which we legitimately need to do and for and for letting the American people know what their government is doing, which is required for democracy. So that's why national security whistleblowing is the most fraught and contentious. But I would argue we need it in the national security realm as well. If we're going to keep our democracy alive.

Laura Knoy:
Well, it's tricky. And when you say national security, whistleblower secrets, public safety, a lot of people are thinking, yes, what about Edward Snowden? He was often described as an NSA contractor. How does he fit into the whole picture that you're painting there, Professor Steiner, of, you know, wanting to make sure that the elites who run our national security policy are abiding by our constitution, but not revealing information that would compromise the security of the American people.

Allison Stanger:
That's exactly why he's such an important story to talk about, because it brings all of these these themes to light. So it's a great question for whistleblowers. I interviewed all the NSA whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden and also the senior leadership of the NSA at the time of the Snowden leaks.

Allison Stanger:
And again, what you have there are these two competing narratives that have very little in common. What I try to do in the book is tease out what's true and here's what I take away from it. And I and I could be wrong, because when you new information can always come to light in matters of intelligence, which is a realm of deception anyway.

Allison Stanger:
But one thing that seems pretty obvious to me is that Edward Snowden could not have complained from within and brought this information to the American people. That's because the NSA inspector general, which is the channel through which these complaints should rise, was removed from his post. The man who was the NSA inspector general at the time of of Snowden's heist, he was he was removed from his post for whistleblower retaliation in 2016. So it's pretty obvious to me that we would never have heard a thing about what's known revealed if he had complained internally rather than fleeing the country. What did he reveal? Well, that's where I think he performed a public service, even though he broke the law and potentially endangered some of our national security practices.

Allison Stanger:
But what he revealed that I think the American people needed to know was a complete change in NSA operating procedures after 9/11. In other words, we were attacked and the NSA put in place emergency measures to keep Americans safe. I would argue that was justified. But what Snowden revealed was that those emergency measures became business as usual. They became standard practice in a kind of endless war without the American people knowing about it.

Allison Stanger:
So in a democracy, we need to have a discussion about those sorts of radical changes. And Snowden forced that discussion. And indeed, he led to changes in the Patriot Act. Congress legislated to correct some of the the abuses that he he revealed.

And that's what we see throughout history and comes out in my book is you have this overreach and then Congress. Congress legislates to prevent the abuses happening again, which can make us feel a little bit more optimistic about the situation we're currently in because we do have options after after the current crisis has passed.

Laura Knoy:
Do you think that Edward Snowden's revelations made us less safe because that was what his critics said?

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, I went through that pretty systematically and really tried to nail that down and. What I found was that a lot of these that these practices, particularly warrantless surveillance, doesn't really gain us additional security, but comes with enormous costs to our privacy rights. So I think there are things we can change about - I think we could do away with warrantless surveillance and be safe as a nation.

Laura Knoy:
Warrantless surveillance. Just remind people what that is.

Allison Stanger:
Sure. Warrantless surveillance is when you when you can gather up information on someone without a warrant. So in other words, if somebody wants to search your home or your car, you have constitutional rights. Someone needs a warrant to do that. But what the NSA was doing with some Internet connection, communications and phone calls prior to Snowden's revelation was kind of vacuuming things up without a warrant. And that's something.

Allison Stanger:
It's complicated, but it's something I think we could use. We could use depend on FISA warrants and be just fine. There's a there's a there's a there's something called the FISA court. Right. Right. For Intelligence Surveillance Court that can grant warrants to kind of overstep. We don't want the NSA collecting information on us without a warrant if we're American citizens.

Let's go back to our listeners. And Robin writes us, The term whistleblower derives from sports where the referee's whistle stops the action. But Robin says the referee whistle blower is officially designated as a judge. The metaphorical whistle blower, on the other hand, has no such designation. So the metaphorical whistleblower takes on the role solely according to his own judgment. Self designation is contrary to all normal rules of governance and maybe ought not to be held harmless. Justification, Robin says, requires immense self restraint. This is a really interesting point. Robin, thank you so much. What do you think, Professor?

Allison Stanger:
I think Robin's raising an excellent point. And whistleblowers really are referees, but they're not the ultimate judge. There has to be an investigation and the complaint has to be explored and designated as worthy of further investigation. So there's a whole process there that has been followed with this this current whistleblower and the whistleblower himself or herself is not the judge of what the outcome should be. They just initiate a process.

Laura Knoy:
So that's what we're seeing going on right now. The process of examining these. Go ahead, professor. Yeah.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, it really is like a referee, though, in the sense that the whistleblower believes this is wrong. It has to stop offsides. I see a rules violation. But but again, a referee will just the game will continue after the referee makes that call with whistleblowers.

Allison Stanger:
We have a process that unfolds.

Laura Knoy:
Like the coaches maybe coming to the sidelines and arguing with the ref? I don't know if that's a good analogy or not.

Allison Stanger:
It's not because in a democracy, you've got checks and balances that have to be. In play and one one branch is not the judge of what is right or wrong. It's got to go through our democratic process. And oftentimes even the legal system weighs in. So it's it's not. No one person is the judge in the American democratic system.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Robin, thank you very much for writing us. And you know, there is a lot of attention, as you've been saying, Professor Stanger, on the current administration and the whistleblower complaints that have come forward and the process that we're in now. But what about the Obama administration doing the research yesterday? A lot of groups who support whistleblowers say President Obama set the stage for President Trump. I want to play just a little clip from the publication The Intercept, which has supported the work of whistleblowers. Here's co-founder Jeremy Scahill in an interview in 2015 expressing his frustration with the Obama White House.

Archival sound:
This government has been relentless in its pursuit of people of conscience who blow the whistle and has characterized them as traitors and spies. And in the process has criminalized the ability to do independent journalism that is meant to hold them accountable, the government accountable.

Laura Knoy:
So that's Jeremy Scahill again in 2015. Traders and spies using some of the same language that we hear now from the Trump administration. What about the Obama administration, Professor Stanger? What did it do in terms of whistleblower treatment?

Allison Stanger:
Well, Jeremy Scahill is making a really important point that the pursuit of of intelligence community leakers has been very harsh in Democratic administrations.

Allison Stanger:
Edward Snowden was the seventh person the Obama administration charged with violating the 1917 Espionage Act and that that's really more than all previous administrations since 1945. So there was this this move to to punish them severely.

Allison Stanger:
And in my book, I write about how this didn't really square with Senator Obama. There was a change change he underwent when he became when he became president. But I think what's different there and it's kind of difficult to see at first glance, but what you have here with Snowden is he is blowing the whistle on NSA practices and it might damage us with respect to our national security in the current situation.

Allison Stanger:
You have the unusual circumstances where the administration is engaged in all sorts of open ways with our enemies. That's very different, so the charges of traitor and partisanship become very different in that context, where we have an administration that's actively seeking for an electoral interference, that has a campaign that was connecting with Russian agents. All of that is unprecedented. And I think it really needs to be brought to light. So when the Trump administration says that. The Intelligence Community was spying on the Trump campaign. They were in some sense, but they were justified in doing so because of the cut the. The suspicious contexts, contacts and company they were keeping.

Allison Stanger:
There's a rule that you can put someone under surveillance if you're there to hops away. That is two connections away from someone who's deemed a threat to American national security. So in researching this book, I could legitimately be the top be the target for surveillance because of talking to people like Edward Snowden. It's no different for the Trump campaign. If if its representatives are meeting with Russian operatives, the intelligence community would be failing on its job if it didn't investigate that.

Laura Knoy:
So it's the intelligence community's job to do that. It's interesting, though, to hear that complaint from Jeremy Scahill saying the Obama White House is treating legitimate whistleblowers and reporters like traitors and spies. And then you hear the same language from President Trump. Now, I want to play a little bit of audio from the president at a private event. This audio was obtained by the L.A. Times. And here he talks about the current whistleblowers as a spy.

Laura Knoy:
This clip is from late-September.

Archival sound:
That person who never saw the call and he never saw something and decided that he or she is a spy versus a whistleblower. The version of the game this true to we used to do in the old days where we were the spies and trees differently.

Laura Knoy:
So spies and treason. And this all goes back to this early conflict that you write about, Professor Stanger. The founders wanted strong whistleblower protections, but not that long into the republic's founding. You know, whistleblowers started to get into trouble. So just kind of pull the past and the present together for us on this place.

Allison Stanger:
Sure. Well, I think it's really important to realize that the clip you just played is saying that the president, United States, thinks members of his administration are spies serving our enemies rather than United States of America. And that is something no American president has said before.

Allison Stanger:
Not members of his own administration. You know, who are coming forward to validate the substance of the complaint. So again, he's kind of tricky twisting language. So it might seem like everybody does this. But the reality is there are a series of unprecedented things he has done that we really should focus our attention on. So that's why I keep coming back to the content of the complaint. You've really got to focus on what it says and the content of that complaint. He's not demott denying and other former members of his administration are coming forward to validate the content of that complaint. So that's a very different situation than than somebody, somebody simply releasing a whole bunch of information to the public.

Laura Knoy:
Coming up in a moment, I want to ask you about the difference, if there is one, between treason and spying. And also, look at some of these other examples in your book, including the person who revealed those photos at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Many listeners probably remember that the whistleblower in that case really had a hard time.

Laura Knoy:
So that's another example that we'll talk about and we'll keep taking your questions and comments.

Laura Knoy:
This is The Exchange, I'm Laura Knoy.. This hour, we're looking at the new book, Whistleblowers Honesty in America. From Washington to Trump, it's by Middlebury professor and security analyst Allison Stanger.

Laura Knoy:
And Professor Stanger, Nancy, emails to ask, please. mentioned Daniel Schlicksup, who blew the whistle on his employer Caterpillar and its massive income tax avoidance. Now, I know this book focuses mainly on federal government whistleblowers going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. So it's a big historical sweep, but you do talk a little bit about the intersection of the private sector and the public sector. So I'd love your thoughts on Nancy's e-mail.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That's totally fair game, because in writing this book, it went through about five manuscript iterations and I cut hundreds and hundreds of pages of really interesting material on the private sector.

Allison Stanger:
I did that just because I wanted the book to be to move and to shed some light on our current situation where the intelligence community has been blowing the whistle on Donald Trump for failing to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. And they've been doing so since his election. So in that sense, what we're seeing now is just the tip of an iceberg, and my book illuminates that.

Allison Stanger:
But as to the question of tax evasion, that's a really interesting issue. I'm not familiar with that particular case, but obviously tax cheats get the whistle blown on them and juries tend to come down very hard on them. That's what the evidence shows. So that is why, Donald, The issue of Donald Trump's income taxes may be a real game changer because it's through that information and tax returns that you can see evidence of tax evasion, but also potentially of money laundering. You can follow money chain and see see where it goes.

Laura Knoy:
Well, Those forms have not been put out there.

Allison Stanger:
They haven't been put out there. And it's interesting because Nixon also didn't want his tax forms put out there. But usually when people don't want their tax forms part put out in public, it's because they have something to hide.

Laura Knoy:
So you mentioned earlier that government whistleblowers, at least at the federal level where you've studied, often fare badly after the media attention goes away, even if they get their jobs back, they're treated poorly and so on. What about private sector whistleblowers like this person that Nancy mentions? How are they typically handled or how do they fare after they blow the whistle on a big company like Caterpillar?

Allison Stanger:
Well, it it varies from case to case, but the private sector is different in that with the S.E.C. after Dodd-Frank, you can receive financial rewards if a whistleblower charge sticks. So, in other words, what that does, if you can get a massive payout and you see this in the pharmaceutical industry in numerous cases, you don't have to worry about the retaliation because you've got a financial reward that guarantees you're going to be able to feed your family. So the corporate sector is very different there in that there can be a big monetary payoff in a successful case. But again, the overwhelming majority of cases aren't successful in that way.

Laura Knoy:
You said earlier that the intelligence community is, quote, blowing the whistle on President Trump. We talked earlier about President Obama and some of the whistleblowers under that administration. And there were a lot, weren't they? Professor Stanger also de facto blowing the whistle on President Obama because they were saying we disagree with his policies.

Allison Stanger:
No, not at all. They were blowing the whistle on what they saw is abuse of power at the National Security Agency.

Laura Knoy:
On the NSA.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah, and obviously the president is the buck stops with the press.

Laura Knoy:
Right. That's why I have the question.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah. So you think they're blowing the whistle on Obama?

Laura Knoy:
I mean, in a way, I understand the nuances there, but in a way, they're blowing the whistle on the on the administration. Maybe it's less personal, but it seems like, as you said, the buck stops with the president no matter what.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah. That's really an interesting question. I think it's a little different because of the way a typical administration runs. And this is not just the Obama administration. Usually you have a team and the different agencies work together and they put together the policy of the United States. And so if you've got that kind of smoothly functioning government, then the president's able to delegate authority to say the National Security Agency. And you're right. He's absolutely ultimately responsible. But that's very different from the current situation where you have governance unlike any we we've seen before in that many of the key positions aren't filled or they're filled by acting people. And Trump really is relying on kind of a shadow team to conduct the foreign policy of the United States. And he's attacking his own intelligence community as being somehow partisan, which is which couldn't be further from the case because Intelligence Committee does not behave like this. They're not partisans. They're patriots. They're behaving that way because they see the president as a national security threat.

Allison Stanger:
So I get what you're saying about these these, um, points of similarity. You're absolutely right. And the buck stops with the president. But nobody considered President Obama or any previous American president a national security threat. And nobody has considered any Obama, President Obama or any previous president as supporting and celebrating foreign interference in our elections. I mean, it's pretty obvious to me that the American people should be electing our officials, not foreigners. So that's what makes this case distinctive. And that explains the Intelligence Committee's unusual behavior. Obviously, it's not normal.

Laura Knoy:
These are the allegations. And again, we've got a whole process in place that NPR has been all over and covering. So I'm going to set that aside for the moment. I want to ask you about a famous whistleblowing case, Professor Stanger, and that's Abu Ghraib. And just remind listeners who might've forgotten what this was all about.

Allison Stanger:
Well, sure. This was the this this horrific abuse of prisoners of war that the photographs revealed from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. There was a man by the name of Joseph Darby who reported this abuse. He basically got the photographs.

Allison Stanger:
They were shared with him because he had a friend who wanted to share photographs and these were inadvertently in there. So he happened upon them.

Laura Knoy:
That was kind of an accident, right? This friend didn't intend for Darby to see these photos.

Allison Stanger:
Yeah. And so once he saw that, he saw them and he thought, you know, this is not right. I have to do something. And he reported it and wanted to remain anonymous, but was outed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at the time. And he wound up not being able to go back to his hometown while because he was seen as - He didn't want to see Iraqi prisoners treated inhumanely. And that was seen as betraying his company, as siding with the with the enemy.

Laura Knoy:
So what happened to him today? Did you talk to him for the book?

Allison Stanger:
I haven't talked to him, but it but it would be interesting to definitely see where he is today. At the time I wrote the book. He he was not able to go back to his hometown.

Laura Knoy:
So that's the Abu Ghraib story that a lot of listeners might remember. We talked about Edward Snowden. There've been a couple other high profile whistleblowers just in recent years. Professor Stanger, who are some of the other names that listeners might recognize?

Allison Stanger:
You know, there's obviously there's a debate over whether people are or not whistleblowers. So Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning whistleblowers are sort of unsung. You know, legitimate whistleblowers are sort of unsung heroes. So what I hope my book does is in some sense highlight these people's contribution to American democracy. But I think what all of these cases show us is that that whistle blowing is really something that only makes sense in a democracy where you think we're supposed to be held to certain ideals and we're supposed to follow rules.

Allison Stanger:
They never make sense in a dictatorship, that is a bad regime, because in those contexts, if you look around the world, say post-communist Europe and look at what the word whistleblower means, it's a negative connotation, not a positive connotation. They're snitches or informers. They're often paid by the regime to do what they what they do. So it's a distinctively American concept.

Allison Stanger:
And I think what's at stake is that whether whether that understanding is going to continue into the future in this country.

Laura Knoy:
I have to ask you about Julian Assange now, and I was kind of saving that for the end because it is controversial. Again, some listeners may think, oh, I know that name. Why is that so? A quick refresher, please. Professor Stanger, on who Julian Assange is.

Allison Stanger:
Julian Assange is the head of WikiLeaks. And WikiLeaks is responsible for dumping all sorts of secrets onto the Internet through the WikiLeaks Web site. They are they feature prominently in the Mueller investigation as being the vehicle for the Clinton emails becoming public. But they mean mainly came to prominence, prominence when they released all sorts of State Department cables about the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

Allison Stanger:
And these were vetted by mainstream media, The Guardian, The New York Times and I think The Washington Post and explained to the public.

Allison Stanger:
But in my book, I argue that Assange really is a curious figure. And to assess him, you've got to look at his behavior over time. WikiLeaks starts out as a pretty honorable anti-corruption initiative, but over time it evolves into being something funded by Russia and Vladimir Putin. Assange becomes a paid employee of Russian television over time. So assessing Assange is tricky business because he changes over time. And I try to tell that interesting story in the book.

Laura Knoy:
So is he at least early on, does he count as a whistleblower when he dumps all these documents on the Internet?

Allison Stanger:
Well, it was it was interesting because his original conception was really admirable. The beta site for WikiLeaks really had this idea that this was going to be an international anti-corruption effort. So you could upload documents, secret documents from around the world and then the relevant user community would interpret what they meant in any language.

Allison Stanger:
And what he found is people might upload documents, but you need them to be interpreted for people to understand what was at stake. And so then he vowed into being primarily focused on what he saw as corruption in the United States. But what I would say was really corruption in in the developing world, in certain dictatorships.

Allison Stanger:
So when you read those cables, they don't really reveal State Department misconduct, but they do reveal misconduct and corruption in other parts of the world.

Laura Knoy:
How is revealing State Department cables admirable whistleblowing?

Allison Stanger:
I don't think it rises to the standard whistleblowing he thought it was. And this is where just because you think you're a whistleblower, you're not necessarily. Fortunately, the State Department didn't overreact to it because I don't think anything in there was that damaging to the United States. But but he thought it was.

Laura Knoy:
He being Assange.

Allison Stanger:
Assange. So so that's that's why I say that, you know, a whistleblower brings the information forward and then the information has to be interpreted for us to know whether it's a legitimate whistleblower.

Laura Knoy:
Here's an email from Michael who says, What does your guests make of the whistleblowers meeting with Representative Adam Schiff? Prior to filing the official complaint, is that part of the process that you talked about earlier, Professor Stanger, where first whistleblowers go to higher authorities and then they go to the press, or what do you think about Michael's question?

Allison Stanger:
Michael's question is a great question. And it really highlights a system that needs reform and further attention, because it's a miracle that this complaint even came forward simply because of the state of our whistleblower protection laws.

Allison Stanger:
Just very briefly, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012 provides whistleblower protection to all government employees except national security employees. So the statute says national security whistleblowing is a contradiction in terms. The complaint rose through the inspector, an inspector general in the intelligence community, and followed all the rules and procedures.

Allison Stanger:
So I think the best response to the question is to to note on the intelligence community inspector general Web site that Michael Atkinson, who is a Trump appointee, has said that this complaint went forward according to the existing rules. That doesn't mean that we can in the future spell out things we've noticed in the process that need further clarification. And that's what what my book shows is you throughout American history, you get abuses of power and then Congress can legislate to try to be sure it doesn't happen again. And in fact, that's how we got the inspector general system in the first place. It's put in place after Watergate to try to learn the lessons of from Nixon's abuse of power.

Allison Stanger:
So, you know, you're right that it's a complicated business and we can do better in spelling out clearly what can and cannot happen.

Laura Knoy:
Since the 90s, how has the vast ease with which you talked about Julian Assange, You know, we can share documents, we can share information. It's just a lot easier to be a whistleblower these days. How has technology changed the equation there, Professor Stanger?

Allison Stanger:
Well, that's a really important question, because I think it's changed so much that I divide my book into two parts. Really? Were the Internet. Yeah. And after the Internet. And that's for all sorts of reasons. I mean, the 24/7 news cycle, I think in many ways creates a lot of noise that makes it hard to focus on what's really at stake in this in this in this current case. And it moves the debate from the halls of Congress to, in a sense, a virtual space on the Internet, where polls tell us what the American people are thinking, even though elections are supposed to determine what the American people want. So the Internet in all sorts of ways has made whistleblowing more complicated.

Allison Stanger:
I'll just cite one one example here. If if whistleblowers. Let's let's put it this way.

Allison Stanger:
If you wanted to speak truth to power, it would seem that the Internet was a great weapon of the weak, and that's what people thought it would be at the beginning of the Internet and we would see that perhaps giving more power to whistleblowers. But the fact of the matter is, the Internet and social media are tools in the hands of the powerful, too. And so what I think we've see now is that actually it gives the upper hand to the powerful in shaping the narrative as opposed to giving a voice to ordinary Americans. And that's something we need to address, because what we're really talking about is keeping elites honest and accountable to the people who elect them.

Laura Knoy:
How so? Professor Stanger, how has the Internet, in your words, given the upper hand to those who would like to keep whistleblowers quiet?

Allison Stanger:
Well, I think the best example is the president of the United States currently with his government by Twitter, where he is, in a sense, circumventing the usual channels for process in our democracy and instead appealing over the heads of our institutions to the American people to support whatever he says he, you know, should be supported. And that's problematic because tweets are how many characters? I don't know. But you can't have any kind of serious conversation about difficult issues via Twitter.

Laura Knoy:
Well, as somebody who's obviously a huge supporter of whistleblowers, Professor Stanger, your admiration for them, you know, shines through in this book. What would you like to see change?

Allison Stanger:
What I'd like to see changes to eliminate the national security exception, eliminate warrantless surveillance, and let's revisit the emoluments clause and pass laws that tell us exactly what corruption is on the part of the president. Let's interpret that clause for the 21st century.

Laura Knoy:
OK, Professor Stanger, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Allison Stanger:
It's been a real pleasure, Laura. Thanks so much.

Laura Knoy:
That's Allison Stanger, professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College. Cyber security fellow at New America. And the author, the book we talked about Whistleblowers: Honesty in America From Washington to Trump. The Exchange is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.