It’s the word on everyone’s lips and in all the headlines: whistle-blower. (Seriously, look at how the word has trended on Google over just the last two weeks compared to the previous 15 years.)
The anonymous CIA agent who filed a complaint about President Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is the latest and possibly most consequential example of a rare breed—the low-level bureaucrat or citizen who learns about wrongdoing at their workplace or a government agency and alerts law enforcement or the public.
It represents the best of citizenship, and is depicted heroically in the movies, but almost nobody would choose to be a whistle-blower. It can be a long and lonely and miserable existence. For instance, in the wake of the financial crisis, I had lunch with Harry Markopolos, the forensic accountant who spent years futilely alerting the Securities and Exchange Commission to the epic financial fraud committed by Bernie Madoff. “I wouldn’t recommend being a whistle-blower to anyone—you lose your job, your money, your family, your friends,” he somberly intoned. “You get death threats. You’ll never get a job again. It’s awful.”
And yet whistle-blowers play a crucial role in maintaining checks and balances against corporate and government misconduct. From Revolutionary War seamen who accused the commander of the Continental Navy of torturing British prisoners to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, these brave Americans have exposed wrongdoing and helped grease the wheels of justice.
Ideally, we shouldn’t have any whistle-blowers—because their very existence shows that the system isn’t working. Their lone acts of bravura and truth-telling demonstrate that existing internal systems, whereby workers at corporations and government agencies can quietly raise concerns from within, aren’t adequately addressing the problems or leading to reforms. Thus, they’re compelled to blow the whistle, anonymously taking their claims to higher-ups or law enforcement or the media.
As a result, the past few decades marked by corruption, corporate fraud, and national security paranoia have been a golden age for whistle-blowers, culminating in the Trump era. “Unsurprisingly, the excesses of the Trump administration have triggered an unprecedented level of whistle-blowing and leaking,” wrote Thomas Mueller in his new book, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, a masterful, eye-opening account of heroes “who are fighting a rising tide of wrongdoing by the powerful.”
The number of leaks of classified information reported by federal agencies hit record levels during the first two years of the administration—from 39 leaks per year under President Obama to 104 leak referrals per year in 2017 and 2018, notes Mueller. And whistle-blowers have emerged across many agencies, from the FBI and EPA to the IRS and Treasury.
In wide-ranging conversations with Fast Company, Mueller talked about the latest whistle-blower drama, the complicated personalities of the people who play that role, and the increasing challenges they face. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Fast Company: Tell me about what makes a whistle-blower—what motivates someone to take action and speak out, given the resistance they’ll face and how their lives will be upended forever.
Thomas Mueller: For a lot of the people that I talked with, and I talked to 200 plus, they didn’t really have a choice. They would love to have avoided it if they could have. That was a cup they had to lift and drink from. There wasn’t an option for them. I heard so many times people say, ‘I have to live with myself’ or ‘I had to look myself in the mirror.’ Sort of trite things, but you begin to get goose bumps when you hear them because you realize these people really mean it. I could say it. You could say it. But we have our point where we say, ‘Ah, fuck it, let’s go with this.’ But they don’t and they know what’s coming down the pike most of the time. So, it’s inspiring to hear these people.
These are individual stories of people who, against all odds—which are not inconsiderable given that they’re taken on multibillion-dollar companies and powerful governments—they said, “No, no, no. I’m not going to do that.” And that’s a good message in this day and age right now.
FC: What are the ingredients that really make up a whistle-blower? Because obviously there are many people who don’t rock the boat. Most people have a conscience and are aware that something is wrong, whether they’re working at a hog farm or a hedge fund. But what prompts them to actually take that step. That’s key. You can think about it and talk about it and complain about it to your husband or wife. But what makes you take all those steps to actually blow the whistle?
TM: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? There are a few characteristics that I ran into that seem to be recurrent themes. Sampling error may be a problem for me because I didn’t do it randomly. I only dealt with people who went public. One of the things I did early on was I said, well, these are only the nuclear scenarios where things go horribly wrong, right? You know, the person finds a problem, they try to raise it within the company or within the organization, and it doesn’t work. And then everything blows up and they go public and there’s a lawsuit and it lasts for 10 years—and that’s when I heard about it.
But there are a lot of times when someone goes to their boss and says, “Hey, I think this is broken.” And she says, “You’re right. We’ve got to fix that.” And they fix it and it goes away. So what I tried to do at the beginning was to go to organizations and say, “Look, can you give me your success stories of internal reporting, where things went well.” And they said, “No fucking way.”
They’re not totally junior. And they’re not extremely senior, with the exception of [Pentagon Papers whistle-blower] Daniel Ellsberg. They’re typically fairly senior and they have to have enough time in the industry to have confidence that their call is the right call and their boss’s call was the wrong call.
They typically have a support system externally like their wife or husband, a family member or someone who says, ‘Do the right thing.’
FC: So they’re not total loners who are off on their own.
TM: No, but on the other hand, they’re not go-along-to-get-along people. They’re not the life-of-the-party people. They’re independent enough and maybe even prickly enough. A lot of people would say to me, “I’m a rules kind of girl. I believe in black and white.” It’s not the utilitarian. It’s the virtue ethics or the ontological approach to things—”This is right because it’s right. And this is wrong because it’s wrong. Not because I’m going to do some calculation to figure out that in the long run, sure we may kill a few people with this drug, but it’s going to save millions of lives.” A lot of people think that way and these people don’t. They say, “No, this is causing human harm.”
Another thing that I saw again and again was the ability to pierce the veil of statistics, of marketing spiel, and to see the actual victims of what you’re doing. Whether that’s someone in a clinical trial or someone in a financial relationship where they’re getting taken to the cleaners. They see past the spreadsheet to the individuals who are getting harmed—and they’re not good with it.
And so often they use language that makes you think that they’re identifying with victims in a very personal way. They say, “What if that was your mother? How would you feel if you found out this hospital was doing unnecessary back surgeries and that was your mother?” And a lot of people were just—get with the numbers, hit your quotas, milestones, bonus, year-end party, and repeat. They were on for the ride. And that’s the way most people operate in a group, especially. And they were able to fairly early on defuse the group thing and say, “No, no, no. You guys got it wrong. This is just unacceptable.”
And it sometimes seems kind of old-fashioned. Again and again, I found that these people grew up in small towns where everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t really pull a fast one because you know Aunt Sally was, was watching. You threw a rock and broke a window. People were gonna know. Your actions have consequences.
It’s also certain fields like healthcare, nuclear safety, engineering, where there’s a very strong professional ethics. Nuclear engineers would say to me, “I swore a holy oath to protect the public because if this thing goes wrong, millions of people could die.” So it’s not optional.
FC: So, there are those who follow their ethical compass and those who follow the administrative rules of their workplace. And most people just do what their boss tells them.
TM: I had a chapter in this book, which was taken out in the end, about so-called failed whistle-blowers. People who didn’t quite make the grade, for whatever reason.
There was one guy who told me a story about his inability to blow the whistle on the DOJ. He was an expert witness in the tobacco trials. And the DOJ under Bush came in and they pressured him to change his testimony and to downplay certain things that he had said.
And he went along with it because he trusted the people that he was working with. And he thought it was for the good of the team. And then weeks later he read an article in the newspaper in which another person who had been pressured blew the whistle. And he said, “Oh, my God.” He said it was a horrible moment in his life because he realized he had missed that opportunity to speak up. Not because he didn’t believe it, not because he wasn’t a good person. It just, there was un-clarity of the situation. He was busy. There were other things going on. He trusted that and he just moved on.
And I think that’s very important, too, to understand. These people, they’re not good with just objecting internally. They’re not good with resigning and finding another job. They say, “No, this is wrong. And not only is it wrong, I’m going to do what it takes to stop it.” They’re actually going to speak out loudly and at great risk. They know that that risk is coming.
So, it’s clarity of thought, wherever that comes from. And again, these people are not necessarily nice or heroes. It’s sort of a disservice to whistle-blowers, who get this saint or sinner dichotomy that people try to apply to them. And that’s wrong because they may be jerks. It’s important that they have good facts. Many of the people I dealt with were really fine people, but they might’ve been tough as office mates. They really are rules people.
FC: It sounds like we’re in a golden era for whistle-blowing, over the last 10 years, so even before Trump. What is it about what’s happening in society and in the U.S. that’s made it such a time for whistle-blowers to be more visible and more active?
TM: Widespread corruption and loss of values. I don’t want to sound like a reactionary, but these people would time and time again say to me, “I hate the term whistle-blower. I was just doing my job. I was paid as a compliance person to call out problems and educate people as to what fraud is. And I was doing that and they crushed me.”
It’s a comment on our times that we need a special term, kind of a weird term, and a whole bunch of weird laws for people who are just doing their fricking jobs, right? Just calling out wrongdoing within the organization with the perhaps naive idea that it’ll hurt the reputation of their organization. Because so many times they thought, “Hey, everyone’s going to be really glad that I pointed this out because, wow, we’d have a lot of egg on our face if this got out. Little did they know that this was a feature, not a bug, the plan was baked in. But they didn’t get it. And then gradually they got it, of course, but only after the pink slip had arrived.
It’s a comment on where we are in society. Look at the guy in the White House, he’s the absolute prime mover and enabler of all the worst things in America’s ethical collapse.
FC: How much has technological innovation play a role? I’m thinking back to the Gilded Age and you could say that arguably there was more corruption back then—or at least a similar level of corruption. Were there a lot of whistle-blowers back then or was it that it wasn’t as easy to become a whistle-blower because you couldn’t go on Twitter, you couldn’t go and write a blog, you couldn’t send an email to all these organizations we have now that keep on top of these things?
TM: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology enables investigative projects like the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers—download I don’t how many terabytes of data of dirty dealings and beam that to the Suddeutsche Zeitung. And that’s magnificent and that, that is incredibly good. On the other hand, anybody in the NSA or anybody in the intelligence industry is going to go to jail if they blow the whistle because the technology has turned against them. And even if they follow the rules that were laid down by [Edward] Snowden in Citizenfour of how to do this [become a whistle-blower without going to jail], they’re already out of date. The spooks have caught up and they know how to do this. If you download a file, or use a flash drive, they’re going to find out. There are these insider threat programs, which theoretically are to prevent leaks, but they’re really to catch whistle-blowers.
FC: Back during the financial scandals of the 1920s, were there whistle-blowers who worked at JPMorgan and other banks and shared tales of malfeasance and misdeeds?
TM: I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that there really weren’t the laws in place to protect people back then. There are today to a large extent and they “protect,” at least nominally . . . At the end of the day, you lose your career. And this is for me the ultimate indictment of the way we look at whistle-blowers—we’re glad for them, we cheer them in the movies, everyone gets a nice warm feeling, and they forget that in real life these people are permanently unemployed. They never work again. And to me, if someone saves a thousand lives with the FAA and they never are employed again, that’s a problem. That points out why whistle-blowing shouldn’t exist. It’s a bad sign for our basic ethical framework. You can’t allow the industry to put these people out of work forever. If the system worked properly and had the right safeguards, we wouldn’t need whistle-blowers.
FC: Now I wanted to ask you about the big story of the day. Would you consider this CIA agent who alerted the inspector general about Trump’s call with Zelensky a true whistle-blower?
TM: Oh, absolutely. This is a government official going through official channels, and making an official whistle-blower complaint. It says it right on the form, “whistle-blower complaint.” And the inspector general looks at this complaint and considers whether it is credible and urgent and if it is by law, the language is it “shall” be transmitted to Congress within seven days. It’s not optional. And this complaint was stranded in political no man’s land by [Attorney General] Barr and company. They were breaking the law. In the book, I go through how this happens time and time again and the wrong signals are sent. This is a broken system. It’s not a whistle-blower facilitator. It’s a whistle-blower trap. And if you want to get the word out, you better go abroad and be prepared to spend the rest of your life abroad. I mean those are the stakes right there.
FC: This has to be great timing for your book, on top of all the stories about the Snowden book that came out a few weeks ago.
TM: It’s extraordinarily lucky. It’s a slender silver lining in a really black cloud hanging over our head. In the seven years I’ve looked at this subject, I have really gone through periods of deep depression. What was unnerving to me is the mechanism of retaliation, the mechanism of corruption, the melding of public and private, but also the culture of secrecy and the cult of money. All these things are common denominators that appear again and again.
FC: What can be done to better protect whistle-blowers or make it easier for them to come forward, and then secondly, what are the structural changes that would prevent the need for whistle-blowers?
TM: What we need in the government realm is access to jury trials, not going through political choke points like the director of national intelligence who was a political appointee. This has become essentially a totally politicized civil service. This is stuff we went through with Nixon. And we need laws that make whistle-blowers report directly to Congress.
More broadly, I think we need to rethink what patriotism and treason really mean. To stop and look this in the eye and ask, what is really being a good citizen?
FC: Lately, I’ve seen it in Silicon Valley, where for a long time there was this culture of extreme loyalty and this misplaced optimism about the benefits of technology. And now you’re seeing this crisis of conscience, where people in the tech sector are coming forward and talking about projects at Google and Amazon and elsewhere that they think are harmful.
TM: At the end of the day, these structures are getting basically good people to do bad things. They have gotten sucked up into this loyalty and obedience trap and they need to do a reset. To realize that being an American means being a square shooter and looking after the little guy. Not cozying up to the money. That’s why I think most of the people who do bad things are perfectly good people that have gone tone-deaf on conscience, and that needs to be front and center.
And that’s what whistle-blowers remind us. That little voice, that little sickness in your stomach when you do that? You need to pay more attention to that.