Note: this article, featuring our Legal Director Tom Devine, was originally published here.

Whistleblowers Have Played a Role Throughout History

No matter how much U.S. President Donald Trump and his Republican acolytes rant and rave about the CIA whistleblower or attempt to impugn their motives for raising an alarm about Trump’s brazen efforts to coerce — or more accurately, bribe or extort — Ukrainian authorities to investigate former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid, they will ultimately accomplish little.

First, as the summary transcript of Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky affirms — together with details of the manipulations of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and testimony offered at the impeachment proceedings by nearly all of the witnesses — everything the whistleblower noted in their nine-page report submitted in early August has proven accurate.

And, second, the whistleblower is protected under laws dating back to 1863 with the enactment of the False Claims Act to expose the corruption of contractors, who were defrauding the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War.

Since then, the laws have been strengthened and include: the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 signed by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, which “protects federal government employees in the United States from retaliatory action for voluntarily disclosing information about dishonest or illegal activities occurring in a government organization”; and the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, which has been revised several times since it was passed and is applicable to the complaint against Trump.

According to United States Code U.S.C. 3033, Section k, Part 5, an employee or contractor of an intelligence organization has a legal right to report to Congress “a complaint or information with respect to an urgent concern” via the inspector general, which is exactly what the CIA officer in this current case did. Moreover, as per presidential orders signed by Barack Obama, intelligence community whistleblowers are protected against reprisals for their actions or being forced to expose their identities.

In this respect, the U.S. is far ahead of Canada in protecting the rights of whistleblowers. As Tom Devine, the legal director of the Government Accountability Project, said in a recent interview with CBC Radio, “the current (Canadian) law is a fraud. It’s consistently the object of ridicule globally among all the international whistleblower organizations.”

Not much, for example, has changed since 1973, when 28-year-old Bob Thomson, who worked as a junior officer for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Chile, decided to take matters into his own hands following the overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende’s government by military dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Concerned about the actions of Andrew Ross, then the Canadian ambassador to Chile, Thomson sent a member of Parliament communication cables showing Ross was misleading Parliament in his championing of Pinochet and his supposed support for the future of democracy in Chile. As punishment for leaking information about Pinochet’s brutal tactics, which became public in Canada (and altered the Canadian government’s willingness to accept Chilean refugees), Thomson was fired from his job with CIDA and was never again able to obtain the security clearance required for another government position.

Whistleblowing has a long and honourable history that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. The modern era of whistleblowing started with Benjamin Franklin. In late 1772, several years before the American Declaration of Independence, Franklin was residing in London as the delegate of the Massachusetts colonial House of Representatives. One day, he received in the mail from an unknown sender, 13 letters to officials in London penned by the British-appointed Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson and lieutenant-governor Andrew Oliver.

In this correspondence, Hutchinson and Oliver described with concern and resentment the increasing colonial resistance to British rule with a recommendation for further restrictive and punitive measures.

Franklin dispatched the letters to Thomas Cushing, the Speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, with instructions that they not be publicized. But Cushing in turn passed on the letters to one of the leaders of the revolution, Samuel Adams. He decided the correspondence was too revealing of Hutchinson’s anti-colonial intentions to keep them a secret, and the letters were published in a Boston newspaper in June 1773, setting off another wave of protest and triggering the Boston Tea Party several months later.

Learning about Franklin’s role with the letters, British government officials wanted to charge him with treason, but the evidence they could marshal against him was insufficient.

In the past 50 years, information provided by whistleblowers has led to the exposure of massive abuse and inflated prices by defence contractors billing the U.S. government (in the mid-1980s, one contractor invoiced the navy US$7,622 for a coffee maker) as well as by drug companies and corporations evading taxes.

But questionable actions of U.S. government officials also have been revealed. In a notable case detailed in the recent film The Post, former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg provided journalists with the Pentagon Papers, which documented the lies perpetrated by the administration of Lyndon Johnson about American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The historic lesson of whistleblowing that Trump and the Republicans are deliberately choosing to ignore is this: as long as there are courageous and principled individuals willing to expose lies and corruption, the truth will always come out.