Potential whistleblowers deserve more support. Their moral choices protect our democracy.
This article was written by our Executive Director and CEO Louis Clark and Auburn Senior Fellow and author Brian D. McLaren and was originally published here.
Sometimes government wrongdoing is on full display. We all witnessed the thousands of aggrieved supporters of then-President Donald Trump supporters, amped up on government-issued lies and rhetoric, hold the Capitol Building and Congress captive while millions of us were held captive by our television screens. But far more often, crimes and abuses of power occur behind closed doors, and the only thing standing between chaos and democracy may be one voice brave enough to bear witness to truth.
For decades, at every level of government and in every political party, whistleblowers have bravely called out abuses of power and policy. Whether publicly or privately, they have bravely shed light on illegality, abuse of authority, and threats to public health and safety when they refuse to obey illegal orders; and they report waste, corruption and cover-ups that weaken our democratic norms and institutions.
Whistleblowers protect our democracy
We were struck by a recent op-ed by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who famously disclosed the Pentagon Papers and revealed that the American public had been misled about the escalation of the Vietnam War. Ellsberg wrote that he wished he’d done more back then and, with striking urgency, called for others to come forward in the final days of the Trump administration amidst fears about Iran: “I am urging courageous whistleblowing today, this week, not months or years from now, after bombs have begun falling. It could be the most patriotic act of a lifetime.”
Whistleblowers, like Ellsberg and thousands of others, are patriots on the frontlines of preserving the essential tenets of justice that transcend political parties and partisanship. They have protected our democracy, including during the Trump era. You may not recognize their names, but it was a youth care worker, Antar Davidson, who blew the whistle on separating immigrant children from parents. Nurse Dawn Wooten came forward with explosive allegations that women in immigration detention were receiving hysterectomies without informed consent.
Drs. Scott Allen and Josiah Rich warned that the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 in immigration detention facilities posed a danger to workers, detainees and the public; TSA official Jay Brainard reported COVID-19 procedures at airports put the public at risk; and Dr. Rick Bright called out the administration’s touting of bogus COVID drug therapies.
Whistleblowers warned that the Trump administration was turning the independent Voice of America into a pro-Trump propaganda outlet. Anonymous whistleblowers revealed that former Attorney General William Barr, in an unprecedented move, reversed career prosecutors and refused to allow a grand jury investigation into the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. And perhaps most infamously, whistleblowers revealed President Trump pressuring Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 election, which prompted his first impeachment.
There are many more. Whistleblowers speak out often at great professional and personal risk of retaliation meant to undercut their credibility and intimidate others from coming forward. They face complex threats and legal challenges. The strains on their families, relationships and friendships are intense. They may face stigma in their communities.
Whistleblowing is complex and receiving the right advice early on can save a lot of anguish. The people who blow the whistle need — and deserve — our informed support.
Help for potential whistleblowers
In our experience, many employees who witness wrongdoing find their moral compass and strength in faith. Bearing witness to abuses puts them at a moral crossroads, which may prompt potential whistleblowers to seek support from their faith communities, and in particular, clergy who are bound by confidentiality but are not experts on whistleblower rights, risks and options. Knowing this, we have taken our decades of experience representing and advocating for whistleblowers, and joined with leading faith-based organizations to launch Bearing Witness. Bearing Witness offers free resources to faith leaders, clergy, and faith-based organizations and communities, to support potential whistleblowers with informed advice and wise counsel.
We all bore witness to the Capitol mob draped in American flags, Kevlar and camo, stoked by one president’s defiant abuse of office. The Capitol building is intact, but our democracy has serious cracks. Brave souls who have witnessed, or will bear ongoing witness, to hidden crimes and cover-ups can help heal those cracks by holding power and privilege to account — whether they are in elected office or pulling strings behind the scenes; dangerous allies in media that have sold their souls, or foreign invaders who wish to capture ours. They are catalysts of accountability. And accountability remains in too short supply.
With networks of faith communities now adding their moral support for whistleblowing, we hope that more employees will find the courage — and expert support — to disclose government wrongdoing. Our democracy depends on it.