Celebrating National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, Despite All Its Contradictions

Chelsea Manning was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act on National Whistleblower Appreciation Day

On July 30, 2013, United States Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and various other offenses.

It was National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, and though she was not found guilty of "aiding the enemy," the verdict in her trial crystallized a contradiction among the political establishment. Officials profess a commitment to whistleblowers except when they blow the whistle on abuse, fraud, or corruption that they have a vested interest in defending.

The resolution for this year's National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, like prior resolutions, stipulates that the United States will encourage whistleblowing but only according to federal law and only if it protects classified information (including "sources and methods of detection of classified information") and also only if the whistleblowing involves "honest and good faith reporting of misconduct, fraud, misdemeanors, and other crimes to the appropriate authority at the earliest time possible."

With those disqualifiers, Manning, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, FBI whistleblower Terry Albury, NSA whistleblower Reality Winner, alleged drone whistleblower Daniel Hale, and a number of other whistleblowers in recent history are rendered criminals.

Both Albury and Winner pled guilty to violating the Espionage Act and were sentenced to federal prison, where they are at the mercy of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) cold-hearted protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hale was charged with violating the Espionage Act, but the pandemic delayed his trial.

Snowden remains in Russia, where he has lived for around seven years under political asylum. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act and trapped in the country after the State Department revoked his passport. (The Justice Department is now criminalizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and other WikiLeaks staff for engaging in source protection and helping Snowden travel from Hong Kong.)

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and other U.S. senators, who support National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, do not view these whistleblowers as the whistleblowers they are. They did not blow the whistle the right way. They did not prioritize the interests of the national security state or military industrial-complex. That makes them "insider threats," or worse, "traitors."

There are whistleblowers from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who have exposed lies and disinformation around the case for a military strike against Syria. Unfortunately, neither Democrats nor Republicans care much for what they have exposed to the world.

Who is and is not a whistleblower has grown more partisan. Under President Donald Trump, Democrats have their whistleblowers, who Republicans refuse to recognize. Likewise, when Barack Obama was president, Republicans had their own individuals who they designated as whistleblowers, which Democrats treated as illegitimate (Larry Alt and Pete Forcelli, who exposed the Operation Fast and Furious scandal, are good examples).  

Support for whistleblowers may always be fraught with contradictions and inconsistencies within institutions and among political elites. Yet, the global COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on low-income, working class, and middle class Americans has shown how crucial it is to protect whistleblowers.

Countless citizens have risked their careers and jobs during a time when unemployment has skyrocketed and millions have been stripped of their health insurance.

A slaughterhouse worker in Denver blew the whistle on unsafe working conditions. Medical center staff in California revealed that management kept them in the dark as COVID-19 spread among nurses.

Prison staff at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, complained in April that the BOP was knowingly misleading the public on the threat of COVID-19 to prisoners and staff. Months later, Carswell had a massive outbreak where around 40 percent of prisoners tested positive for COVID-19.

Lauri Mazurkiewicz was fired from her job as a nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago after she emailed colleagues that she did not want to work without a mask. She has asthma and an elderly father with a respiratory disease.

Corporate retaliation against whistleblowers was documented throughout the country. At an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, Chris Smalls was fired after he brought attention to Amazon's lack of concern for worker safety. But what Smalls and others revealed was largely validated, and it sparked an investigation by the New York Attorney General's office that forced Amazon to make modest changes to workplace conditions.

In recent weeks, media reports have brought attention to a blacklist that McDonald's management apparently has at some franchise locations, where "mitoteros," which translates into gossipers or troublemakers, are designated for termination, especially if they organize workers for better conditions.

The Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA), which is part of the Labor Department, was reportedly receiving two dozen whistleblower complaints a day during the COVID-19 pandemic. OSHA had over 1,000 open complaints in May. However, when Grassley and others celebrate whistleblowers, these are not the kind of whistleblowers they support because they make it harder for corporations that fund their campaigns to continuously make record profits.

Days for celebrating whistleblowers are certainly important, and there are plenty of lesser known whistleblowers, who this newsletter will spotlight. But as necessary is a shift in the culture away from one that lets officials arbitrarily decide who is and is not a whistleblower and which dissenters citizens are allowed to support.

Our advocacy must not limit whistleblowing to "proper channels" that are compromised or terribly constrained by authorities that will see to it that they do not work.  

To truly appreciate whistleblowers, we need to see the press and public as one of the proper channels for revealing corruption and create greater protections for freedom of speech and expression that shield employees in corporations and governments from termination and prosecution.

Image by Anarchimedia