Analysts love to theorize about why someone comes forward. Former CIA case officer Robert Baer suggested recently that the whistleblower was part of “a palace coup against Trump,” as payback for his mistreatment of the intelligence community. From Watergate to CIA torture, political combatants denounce “disgruntled employees,” “loose cannons” and “spies,” insinuating that whistleblowers’ resentment of their organizations discredits their claims.
Conversely, allies tend to elevate whistleblowers to the status of heroes. Liberal and conservative Trump critics have applauded the CIA operative to legitimize his revelations. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said Oct. 6, after a second Ukraine whistleblower came forward, “We hope others will follow their courageous example.”
Both demonizing and canonizing whistleblowers are pointless exercises. As a matter of law, a whistleblower’s motivations are irrelevant. People who come forward to expose injustice and abuse of power often have deeply personal reasons: ideological disagreements, personal vendettas, career frustrations. W. Mark Felt, the FBI official who became “Deep Throat,” had recently been passed over for the bureau’s top job. The protections afforded by our laws to people like him don’t discriminate based on intent. A whistleblower’s putative desire for vengeance against his employer or colleagues is no more relevant to the strength of his charges than his putative altruism. Only the facts matter — in this case the accusations in the Ukraine whistleblower’s nine-page complaint, whose validity Congress must weigh.
There is a danger in our desire to cast whistleblowers in the heroic mold. It imposes unrealistic demands for purity on all aspects of their lives and can deter people who don’t feel particularly pure or heroic from blowing the whistle, according to A.J. Brown, a professor at Griffith University Business School in Australia and an international authority on whistleblowing and public integrity. Australia’s Parliament put it well in a 1994 report: “The public interest in the exposure and correction of illegal and improper conduct is just as well served by an allegation which proves on investigation to be accurate, but which was made purely out of spite, malice or revenge.” Brown promotes the view of whistleblowing as a “quiet” or “everyday” kind of heroism, a facet of simply doing one’s job properly.
In the United States, lawmakers have argued that negative intent can be a crucial tool in uncovering malfeasance. “Setting a rogue to catch a rogue,” wrote Sen. Jacob M. Howard, who authored the False Claims Act during the Civil War, “is the safest and most expeditious way I have ever discovered of bringing rogues to justice.” Since its passage in 1863, that statute has become an effective tool to fight corporate fraud, since it enables individuals with evidence of wrongdoing against the federal government to bring suit against corporate offenders or individuals on behalf of the American people, even when the Justice Department decides not to intervene, and to collect a bounty if they win. The False Claims Act has led to the recovery of more than $60 billion in ill-gotten tax dollars and the deterrence of an estimated $1 trillion in further fraud.
Whistleblowers’ sense of outrage, anger or vindictiveness can drive them to make their disclosures. Mary Inman, the London-based head of the international whistleblower practice at the international law firm Constantine Cannon, observes that more than half her clients had been fired before they approached her, and others suffered career setbacks or workplace reprisal for raising concerns internally. “Most whistleblowers make their life-changing decision to act from a complex mixture of raw emotions — fear, indignation, righteousness, desire for vengeance after having been silenced or maligned,” she says. “The fact that they were mistreated can definitely become a tipping point for them, the animus that drives them finally to report the wrongdoing they’ve sat on for a long time.”
Inman says she prefers working with the more pragmatic whistleblowers — whose range of emotions often includes fear of being swept up in a criminal probe of the wrongdoing they see at work — over what she calls “soap box” whistleblowers motivated primarily by righteousness, who in her experience rarely feel a sense of justice at the end of a case. “People who blow the whistle defensively, or even out of spite for how colleagues have treated them for speaking up, are often intensely practical and realistic people who understand the imperfections of the legal system and make ideal clients.”
Such motivations can help sustain the years of dogged and draining effort that whistleblowing often requires. In 2002, Allen Jones, an investigator at the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General in Harrisburg, discovered a massive, multistate fraud scheme run by major pharmaceutical companies. When his superiors pressured him to halt his investigation, citing Big Pharma’s political clout in the state, Jones became an undercover operative in his own office. “I was thinking: ‘You’re the enemy. And I’m going to prove what you’re doing, when you’re doing it and why it’s wrong,’ ” he told me of his stance toward some of his bosses and colleagues. Jones eventually published his allegations on the Internet and in interviews with major newspapers, and helped the state of Texas win a legal settlement of $158 million against Johnson & Johnson in 2012 — 10 years after he uncovered the scheme. That marked the end of the case and helped make a larger national settlement that the Justice Department and a team of whistleblowers concluded with Johnson & Johnson for $2.2 billion. As one anonymous whistleblower told me of another organization’s attacks on his motives: “They tried to dismiss me as a disgruntled employee. Which of course I was — who wouldn’t be disgruntled, after everything I’d seen and suffered at my workplace?”
One of the most successful and momentous acts of whistleblowing in American history may fit this pattern. Felt was the de facto second-in-command at the FBI when the bureau’s longtime head, J. Edgar Hoover, died. Felt had seemed to be his heir apparent. But President Richard Nixon instead chose L. Patrick Gray to lead the bureau, a major disappointment for Felt, according to reporting by Bob Woodward. Surely Felt was also alarmed by Nixon’s crimes and his attempts to control the FBI, but it’s impossible to discount the likelihood that his frustration impelled him to become Deep Throat, the anonymous source to Washington Post reporters Woodward and Carl Bernstein. That choice helped bring down Nixon and his Watergate co-conspirators. Had Nixon promoted Felt, what might history have looked like?
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story implied that former CIA case officer Robert Baer is a supporter of President Trump who found the whistleblower’s motivations “impure.” Baer is an independent intelligence analyst and a supporter of impeachment; his assessment of the whistleblower’s motives was value-neutral.]