What is a Whistleblower?

A common legal definition of a whistleblower is someone, typically an employee, who discloses information, either internally (to managers, organizational hotlines, etc.) or externally (to lawmakers, regulators, the media, watchdog organizations, etc.), that he or she reasonably believes evidences:

  • a violation of law, rule or regulation;
  • gross mismanagement;
  • a gross waste of funds;
  • abuse of authority; or
  • a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

This definition captures two key points about whistleblowers. First, whistleblowers typically are current or former employees with direct, credible information about wrongdoing that they became aware of while on the job. Second, the concerns are serious and their disclosures reveal changes that must be made according to the law or in protection of the public interest.

Myths About Whistleblowing

Cultural biases, combined with the natural resistance from within organizations to those who challenge the practices of their employers, have led to several common misperceptions about whistleblowers. Our experience working with thousands of employees of conscience refutes these beliefs with several important truths.

Myth #1: Whistleblowing is a crime.

  • FACT: Disclosing evidence of wrongdoing is not a crime. It is a legally protected right. The aggressive prosecution of intelligence community employees who have released classified information to expose illegal acts by the government and abuses of its authority has fueled a widespread belief that whistleblowing is a crime. It’s not.Whether or not you agree with the actions taken by Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, national security employees who have released classified information dominate the public narrative about whistleblowing. Like Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers, these individuals were whistleblowers who, because the government did not have appropriate policies in place to allow intelligence employees and contractors to disclose important information, chose to commit a possible crime—revealing clearly marked classified documents—in order to report what they consider far more significant crimes.Intelligence whistleblowers are unique, as they have very few legal protections and immense vulnerabilities. Most whistleblowers are not forced to risk breaking the law by disclosing classified information to expose wrongdoing because only a small percentage of whistleblowers work in the intelligence community.As a rule, unless public release is barred by statute, whistleblowers who disclose evidence of wrongdoing are engaging in a legally-protected activity. Most whistleblowers disclose information about financial fraud, public health or consumer safety threats, environmental dangers, or other misconduct—information that is not classified. They are not operating in a national security context and have legal rights to report wrongdoing. In fact, since 1978, there has been a unanimous, bipartisan legislative mandate for every whistleblower law enacted in the United States to encourage disclosures of serious concerns.

Myth #2: Whistleblowers are too quick to run to the press with their grievances.

  • FACT: Almost all whistleblowers raise concerns internally first. First, it is important to note that employees who raise serious concerns internally to managers or through other internal channels are considered whistleblowers under nearly all whistleblower protection laws.The vast majority of whistleblowers—over 95 percent—try to solve the problem internally first. Most employees have faith that raising legitimate concerns with their supervisors, an ombudsman, or through another internal mechanism, will resolve the issue. Some employees spend months diligently attempting to achieve corrective action in-house. Typically, it is only after attempts to address a problem are ignored or whistleblowers face retaliation that they decide to “blow the whistle” outside of the organization.

Myth #3: Many whistleblowers are in it for the money.

  • FACT: Most whistleblowers are motivated by a strong sense of professional, civic, ethical, and/or legal duty influenced by the seriousness of the misconduct or degree of harm. When employees speak up, it is most often because they feel they are just doing their job.They speak out because they have witnessed misconduct they feel must be addressed. Whether it is dangerous safety problems at nuclear weapons facilities, prescription drugs that should be recalled because they are causing deaths, or gross waste of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary defense contracts, whistleblowers generally just want to protect the public.Some whistleblower laws, like the False Claims Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, offer whistleblowers a percentage of the portion of money recovered as an incentive for reporting. While these laws have been successful in encouraging reports of fraud, the chances of winning an award very small. The Whistleblower Protection Act for federal employees and most non-financial whistleblower protection laws do not have award provisions.In our experience, most employees who feel compelled to speak out about wrongdoing explain that they had to act in order to remain true to themselves. As one explained, “I have to keep looking at myself in the mirror.”

Survival Tips

Thinking About Blowing the Whistle?

Deciding to blow the whistle on misconduct requires an understanding of the potential risks. In order to improve your chances of successfully addressing the problem while minimizing the possibility of reprisal, ask yourself these questions first.

If these questions show that disclosure is the right choice for you, we thank you for your bravery and are here to help guide you through the process if you need it.

How to Blow the Whistle Safely

Government Accountability Project works with whistleblowers throughout their entire disclosure process. We strive to produce the largest impact possible by using litigation, legislative lobbying, and widespread media campaigns, but we put our client’s safety first. Here are some of the best practices we have developed over the years for each step of the disclosure process.

Consult and Plan

  • Consult your loved ones. Consider the impact on family members and friends should retaliation occur.
  • Get legal help early on. You need a lawyer, especially one versed in whistleblower law. Government Accountability Project can provide this or help you find a lawyer.
  • Make a plan. Decide whether and when to blow the whistle internally or externally. When does it make sense to give up on internal channels? What documents, if any should be shared with whom? Try to predict how those in the agency or department will react and respond to a disclosure. Develop back up employment options and check for skeletons in your closet in case of a smear campaign.

Build Allies

  • If possible, test the waters for support among your colleagues through strategic but casual questioning and discussions. Solidarity can make a tremendous difference in preventing retaliation, but make sure you don’t expose yourself. Stay on good terms with people who could potentially be witnesses or allies.
  • Consider working from within the system. Challenges to institutions often are not taken seriously unless you can prove that you provided the proper authorities with the opportunity to correct the problem, but they chose not to do so. Be careful that your attempt to work within the system does not sound the alarm and trigger a cover-up or reprisal.
  • If raising the issue casually doesn’t work, you should consider officially raising the issue in writing, clearly stating what is wrong and your position on the matter, which could protect your credibility later on. Again, be careful and don’t protest so much within the system that you will face retaliation.
  • Network outside of your job, with elected officials, journalists, and activists who might be able to help you.
  • Before you begin working with a reporter or an advocacy group, negotiate the scope of what you’re willing to disclose, whether you need anonymity, and any other protections or concerns. It is easier for everyone to be clear on the rules from the beginning.
  • Give the authorities assigned to investigate your disclosures a chance, even if you don’t trust them. It helps to try to operate in good faith, and you may poison the well if you make it clear you distrust anyone associated with your employer.

Proceed with Caution

  • Avoid creating any other reason to be fired. Maintain good job performance and follow workplace rules.
  • Blow the whistle on your own time, with your own resources, not your employer’s. (Don’t communicate with your contacts during your work hours, or use office equipment, like office phones, computers, or even paper.)
  • Do not embellish your case. Stick to the facts only, and only the ones you are sure of.

Keep Records

  • Review your company’s non-disclosure policies and make sure you avoid releasing proprietary information like intellectual property, trade secrets, and company information protected by attorney-client privilege.
  • Keep a detailed record of the misconduct, your own job performance and reviews, and any harassment or retaliation. This can be incredibly valuable in court when the time comes. Record dates, times, and participants in events and conversations.
  • Keep evidence in a safe place. Agencies have in the past subpoenaed, searched, and ransacked homes, so the best choice is to secure the evidence with an attorney, where it is shielded by attorney-client privilege.
  • Be careful to avoid being accused of stealing any documents. In instances where it is not practical to take evidence home, tactics such as mislabeling and misfiling records in your office, to be found later, can prevent their destruction.
  • Strip metadata from any documents you send, such as photo locations, watermarks, or tracked changes.
  • If maintaining confidentiality and anonymity is critical, use secure, encrypted means to communicate, including SecureDrop for document exchange, Signal for texts and calls, ProtonMail or another email platform that uses Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption, or mail without a return address.
  • If you intend to leak documents anonymously, make sure that you are not the only person who possesses these documents so they can’t be traced back to you. Do not make external disclosures with any information marked classified, or whose release is specifically prohibited by a federal statute. Such documents can only be disclosed internally to the Special Counsel or an Inspector General.
  • Rather than printing secure documents, take pictures of them on your personal secured phone. If you can’t take a photo, make written notes. However, do not take photographs of information for which public disclosure is unprotected.
  • Instead of providing documents, consider guiding reporters or NGOs in making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Be careful that the FOIA isn’t so specific that it tips off the agency that there is a whistleblower. If the agency denies their existence and you have “buried” copies of the records in camouflaged locations, teaming with the requestor to expose that cover-up can be a significant development when challenging broader misconduct.

Resources About Whistleblowing

Government Accountability Project publishes books, articles, reports, white papers, and guides to whistleblowing. This page houses several resources about whistleblowing and our work.


Truth-Telling in Government: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees, Contractors, & Grantees

Our government’s integrity depends on the commitment and effort of millions of federal employees, contractors and grantees around the world. Those same workers are in the best position to learn when decisions and actions deviate from the core mission and responsibilities of government, be it through corruption, failing to comply with laws and regulations, wasting taxpayer money, jeopardizing public health and safety, or otherwise abusing the public trust. As a new administration takes office and the coronavirus pandemic continues, information remains our most powerful tool to promote open and accountable government. In order to support those speaking up for truth, we developed the second edition of our guide for federal government employees, contractors, and grantees–across all agencies and issues—who have discovered serious abuses of public trust and need guidance about their rights, risks and options. Whether you have yet to raise concerns or have already made disclosures, this guide is the first step for  navigating the complex path of whistleblowing safely and effectively.

Speaking Up for Science: A Guide to Whistleblowing for Federal Employees

Science whistleblowers have historically functioned as one of the most powerful vehicles for exposing environmental, health, and safety risks, research censorship, gross mismanagement, and other abuses that undermine the missions of federal agencies to protect the public interest. This free guide seeks to empower and protect federal employees of conscience by offering guidance about their legal rights to blow the whistle and practical advice for making disclosures about wrongdoing in the safest and most effective ways possible.

Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists

The partnership between whistleblowers and journalists is essential to a functioning democracy. The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable often depends on the critical work of journalists who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures and bring them to the public. This free guide seeks to empower and protect journalists and their whistleblower sources by sharing critical information about their shared goals, responsibilities, and challenges.

Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Public Interest Organizations

This resource was developed to support advocacy groups that, in the course of working on issues across the social, economic, and environmental justice spectrums, might encounter employees who want to share important information to advance accountability. The free guide offers practical guidance to help them protect and support potential whistleblowers while ensuring they are not inadvertently exposed to retaliation.


Caught Between Conscience and Career: Expose Abuse Without Exposing Your Identity

Published by Government Accountability Project in partnership with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project On Government Oversight, Caught Between Conscience and Career is a free survival guide for public employees considering blowing the whistle on waste, fraud, or abuse while maintaining anonymity. Whistleblowers can look to this guide for tips on how to avoid surveillance and make their protected disclosures have greater impact without incurring reprisal. Caught Between Conscience and Career is an updated April 2019 version of the 2002 publication, Art of Anonymous Activism.

The Corporate Whistleblower’s Survival Guide: A Handbook for Committing the Truth

Tom Devine and Tarek F. Maassarani
This step-by-step guide details key information that potential corporate whistleblowers should know before, during, and after blowing the whistle.


Sunshine Week 2018: How Public Information Officers Limit Media Access

National Press Club, Washington, DC, March 27, 2018
Panel discussion examining how the Trump administration uses public information officers to limit and shape reporters’ access to government information. Tom Devine, Government Accountability Project Legal Director, is featured as an expert panelist.

Truth Be Told: Reflections from Whistleblowers

State Farm Ethics Lecture, University of Nebraska Lincoln, September 20, 2017
Dana Gold, Government Accountability Project Director of Education, facilitates a conversation with whistleblowers Richard Bowen and Walt Tamosaitis on their decisions to blow the whistle, the retaliation they suffered, and the changes they saw their disclosures make. Gold has been an advocate for whistleblowers for close to three decades as an attorney, an academic, and a program director.

Whistleblower Protection and the Truth: Linked Intimately

TEDx Wilmington Salon: Whistleblowers and the First Amendment, July 30, 2016
In this talk on whistleblowing as freedom of speech, Government Accountability Project Legal Director, Tom Devine, illustrates the historical impact of whistleblowers and the potential of their truth to positively shape society. Devine has assisted thousands of whistleblowers since joining Government Accountability Project in 1979, and he won the first U.S. Supreme Court test of the Whistleblower Protection Act in 2015.

The Power of Individual Conscience: Strategically Multiplied

TEDx Wilmington Salon: Whistleblowers and the First Amendment, July 30, 2016
In this speech by Louis Clark, Executive Director of Government Accountability Project, Clark frames whistleblowing as the inconvenient truth that is worth championing. Clark founded the organization in 1977 and has received numerous awards for his long-lasting commitment to advocating for social and political change.

Reports and Publications

Are Whistleblowing Laws Working? A Global Study of Whistleblower Protection Legislation (March 2021) – In collaboration with the International Bar Association, Government Accountability Project tracked the records of whistleblower laws in 37 countries, examining the strength of national laws on paper compared with consensus international best practices. The report is an unprecedented effort to understand the successes and shortcomings of whistleblower protection legislation worldwide.

Ten Years After Deep Water Horizon: Whistleblowers Continue to Suffer an Unending Medical Nightmare Triggered by Corexit (April 2020): Government Accountability Project conducted a year-long study on the effects of the cleanup agent Corexit used in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This report, marking the 10th anniversary of that spill, details the steep environmental, economic, and health tolls that the use of Corexit and government inaction have continued to take on people living in the Gulf of Mexico region. 

Assessment of the Implementation of the International Banks Whistleblower Policies (September 2019): Government Accountability Project examined the progress of five major international banks in implementing their whistleblower policies. The report seeks not to evaluate the existing policies but rather to assess their implementation; such assessment is necessary to determine if whistleblower claims are being resolved appropriately and moreover whether the policies are working as intended.

Protecting Science at Federal Agencies: How Congress Can Help (November 2018): Government Accountability Project collaborated with 11 other public interest organizations to record new and ongoing threats to the communication of science and its use in public health and environmental policy decisions, as well as recommending steps Congress can take in response (additional blog post here).

Protecting Whistleblowers in South Africa: How Well is the Law Working for People? (September 2018): Preliminary report utilizing 30 court cases to assess the effectiveness of the comprehensive legal protections for whistleblowers, which South Africa adopted in 2000.

Promoting and Sustaining the National Climate Assessment After a Period of Suppression and Political Influence: A Cautionary Tale (January 2017): Analyzes the suppression of the first National Climate Assessment during the George W. Bush administration. By detailing how officials systematically censored sensitive climate change information, this report presents a strong case for supporting and defending the USGCRP and the climate change impacts assessment process.

A Whistleblower’s Bill of Rights Through a World Bank Lens (December 2016): Former Carvalho Fellow Keith Henderson provides extensive analysis concluding that the measures in place at the World Bank to protect staff members from retaliation after disclosing improprieties do not meet the best-practice standard set out in U.S. law.

Why Whistleblowers Wait: Recommendations to Improve the Dodd Frank Law’s SEC Whistleblower Awards Program (February 2016): Warns that arbitrary rulings could discourage disclosures by convincing would-be whistleblowers that the Security and Exchange Commission’s award system: “neither offers proportional incentives that overcome the risks of disclosure, nor is grounded in the reality whistleblowers face…”

Representative Cases in Which the United Nations or its Funds, Programmes or Agencies have not Complied with Best Practices in Whistleblower Protection (August 2014): Details ten representative whistleblower cases from the United Nations and its funds, programs and agencies. The report examines the institution’s failure to implement best practices for the protection of whistleblowers, in violation of the 2014 U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Banking Sector Accountability: Understanding and Handling the Complex ‘SOX Plus One’ Whistleblower Claim (September 2013): This best practices report aims to inform legal counsel for whistleblowers about how to navigate banking and financial institution whistleblower claims – not only under protection laws, but also under federal statutes that can provide financial rewards to clients.

The Current State of Whistleblowing Laws in Europe (April 2013): Details how very few European countries have enacted laws that directly protect whistleblowers in stark contrast to the United States, which offers a multitude of different protections for employees across corporate industries and government agencies.

Deadly Dispersants in the Gulf: Are Public Health and Environmental Tragedies the new Norm for Oil Spill Cleanups? (April 2013): Details the devastating long-term effects on human health and the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem stemming from BP and the federal government’s widespread use of the dispersant Corexit, in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Evidence suggests that the cleanup effort has been more destructive to human health and the environment than the spill itself.

International Best Practices in Whistleblower Protections (March 2013): Checklist of 20 requirements that reflects an organizational history of lessons learned about the difference between policy rhetoric and meaningful, ‘bullet-proof’ anti-retaliation measures. All the concepts set out exist in various employee protection statutes currently on the books in the United States or other countries.

Tipping the Scales: Is the United Nations Justice System Promoting Accountability in the Peacekeeping Missions or Undermining It? (September 2012): Analyzes the impact of the United nations internal justice system on accountability practices int he UN peacekeeping missions based on a review of two years of UN Dispute Tribunal and UN Appeals Tribunal judgments, and 36 interviews with key UN personnel, external attorneys and whistleblowers from eight different peacekeeping missions.

How the World Bank’s Peer Review Services Deny Staff the Right to a Fair Hearing (August 2011): Evaluates reforms to the World Bank’s Peer Review Services, finds that the internal justice system used by bank whistleblowers fails to comply with international human right standards, and proposes solutions to address these shortcomings.

Whistleblower Witch Hunts (December 2010): Exposes illegal tactics widely used by federal authorities to silence employees who call attention to security lapses, dangers to the public, and abuses of power within their agencies.

The Foundation for the Future: What FOIA Documents Reveal (July 2010): Exposes the highly irregular manner in which the Foundation for the Future, an obscure project funded by the U.S. Department of State, was established and operated by Bush administration officials and appointees. Read the Executive Summary here. Key FOIA documents: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Appendix.

Lack of Security for World Bank Staff and Consultants (March 2010): Documents the lack of security for World Bank staff and consultants, based on the experience of an International Finance Corporation employee.

The IDB, Poverty and Racial Discrimination (October 2009): Shows the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the most important mutlilateral lender to Latin America, fails to promote racial equality adequately. The issue affects the identification, preparation, and implementation of IDB programs and projects in the region, as well as the Bank’s hiring, retention, and promotion practices. Executive Summary in English. Resumen Ejecutivo en Español. El Informe en Español.

Corrupt Privatization Does Not Deter IMF Lending to Sri Lanka (July 2009): Government Accountability Project and Consultants 21 Limited report on the International Monetary Fund’s continued lending to Sri Lanka to reverse declines in tax revenues despite the budget deficits being a result of a lack of safeguard measures to protect state assets, corruption, and fraud favoring private interests in the sale of state-owned enterprises.
www.consultants21.com (Lanka Marine Services Supreme Court Judgement, Sri Lanka Insurance Company Supreme Court Judgement)

The ABC’s of Drug Safety: Accountability, Balance, and Citizen Emplowerment (April 2009): Examines a number of controversies with regard to clinical trial studies and institutional review boards – analyzing how major players at both the corporate and FDA levels have too often failed to perform their critical duties to safeguard human health. More importantly, this report proposes constructive reforms to the overall process.

Running the Gauntlet: The Campaign for Credible Corporate Whistleblower Rights (September 2008): Surveys the dangerous landscape of corporate whistleblower laws, and recommends strategies for corporate whistleblowers to best protect themselves from further retaliation.

Privatization & Corruption: The World Bank and Azerbaijan (August 2008): Exposes the World Bank’s role in the widespread corruption surrounding privatization in Azerbaijan during the late 1990’s.

Plundering the Yerevan Water Utility (August 2008): Investigates allegations of corruption in the World Bank-funded Municipal Development Project (MDP) in Yerevan, Armenia.

Risky Appropriations: Gambling US Energy Policy on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (March 2008): Details the severe shortcomings and false assertions posed in the Global Energy Nuclear Partnership. Fact sheet here.

OSLA Proposal for the United Nations (November 2007): Discusses possible models and recommendations for the proposed UN Office of Staff Legal Assistance, using national and international precedents as a guide.

Review of the Department of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank (September 2007): Reviews the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity and its practices from 2005-2007 and documents several immediate and long-term problems at INT.

Citizens Environmental Monitoring and Technical Assessment – Los Alamos (July 2007): Details the elevated and potentially harmful levels of radioactivity that are present in environmental samples collected in the area around the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Radioactive Wastes and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (April 2007): Examines the Department of Energy’s Global Nuclear Partnership, a program that proposes to expand nuclear energy worldwide.

Redacting the Science of Climate Change (March 2007): Findings of a year-long investigation into political interference at federal climate science agencies.

Atmosphere of Pressure (February 2007): Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists uncover new evidence of widespread political interference in federal climate science.

Nongovernmental Monitoring and Technical Assessment of Past, Present, and Future Techa River Radiation (October 2006): Details the levels of radionuclear contamination in the Techa River and Chelyabinsk region of Russia.

Systematic Injustice: Hanford Worker’s Compensation Program (August 2006): Documents the Department of Energy’s interference with Hanford worker’s compensation claims and supplies update on conditions and provides remedies.

Citizens Monitoring of Columbia River Radionuclides (June 2005): Scientific analysis of chemical contaminants finds previously unknown measures of radioactivity around the perimeter of the Hanford nuclear site in Richland, WA. Fact sheet here. FAQ here.

Shielding the Giant (2003): Investigative report records USDA’s failure to act on evidence that ConAgra was shipping E. coli contaminated ground beef.

Hamburger Hell: The Flip Side of USDA’s Salmonella Testing Program (2002): Government Accountability Project and Public Citizen document flaws in the implementation of USDA’s salmonella testing program.

The Jungle 2000: Is America’s Food Fit to Eat? (2000): Government Accountability Project and PUblic Citizen document the experiences of USDA inspectors as meat processors began to implement Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans.

Recommended Resources

For a curated list of recommended articles, books, videos, and other valuable resources on whistleblowing, click here.