I know you’re out there, and this is for you. What you’re weighing, it’s not as easy as you think. But it can matter more than anything else you do with your professional life.
Washington is awash with leaks; if they were real water we’d all drown. The American people feel they are seeing the inner most workings of government, and it is not pretty. Powerful people are falling. Our democracy may be at risk. President Trump and his team have no intention of watching from the sidelines. There is a struggle going on, and people are taking sides.
So if you’re a government employee sitting in a cubicle in Washington DC, what are you thinking? To leak or not to leak? Will you blow the whistle?
I know more than a little bit about your decision. With 21 years of service at the Department of State, I was assigned to wartime Iraq in 2009. For me, when the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the reconstruction program under Presidents Bush and Obama reached the limits of what in good conscience I could participate in, and after failing to see any change going through channels, I blew the whistle, via a book, We Meant Well. The State Department in response flirted with sending me to jail, tried to fire me in part for “lack of candor” in refusing to participate in their investigation, and in the end pursued me into an early retirement.
I learned the decision to contact a reporter, or otherwise to blow the whistle, is a hard one. In the end you have to ask yourself one seemingly simple but actually complex question: is the juice worth the squeeze?
As for that squeeze, an anonymous leaker must expect people to come looking; you’re taking on the President of the United States after all. If the past (including my case) is any guide, much of the action that follows a disclosure will be aimed at the leaker, not the information leaked. You will be scared going in, but the fear should make you cautious. You will need to learn what intelligence officers call tradecraft; you may end up trying to hide your actions from them. Whatever journey you embark on, fear will travel with you.
There are real things to be afraid of. Following the example set by the Obama administration, someone exposing classified information may be subjected by the Trump administration to Espionage Act prosecution, with the near-certainty of Federal prison time if convicted.
Think you’re too unimportant for an investigation? Safe because your leak was, as in my own instance, nothing remotely classified? Maybe. But the most effective way to silence the next person in your position is to have them afraid to even try. Your now-adversaries would love to get the high level leakers, but won’t care too much if the heads on display come from the lower ranks instead. Either way the point to those others out there still considering leaking is made.
The administration will fight back in other ways, too. You are an anonymous source, an unnamed official, someone “with knowledge of the discussion.” It’s your word against that of a person who can appear on a major news program to offer up information (real or not) that discredits yours. Americans tend to assess truthfulness these days in line with preconceived beliefs, and that’s running about 50-50 on any given day in the Trump Era.
That’s the squeeze for a leaker. Now the juice.
You may not have the evidence of a still-smoking gun to “bring down” anyone. But you can contribute to a larger story, supply a missing puzzle piece, or nudge an investigative process forward. A big mosaic is made of little pictures. What you know likely does matter, and the people have a right to know what matters about their government. Who besides someone on the inside – you – can tell them?
Things can change significantly if you decide to blow the whistle, as opposed to leaking. While there are legal definitions, the key difference is a whistleblower purposely gives up their anonymity; Edward Snowden is the best known example. The risks scale up geometrically after that – you are saying “here I am, come after me.” Legal protections exist, including the Whistleblower Protection Act, but they do not snap into place easily. You will need a good lawyer well before you blow any whistle.
The returns for blowing the whistle can be significant, and it was this calculus (plus a dollop of ignorance I’m afraid) that lead me away from leaking into a full public disclosure. Standing up by name, you earn credibility against attacks ad hominen, and for the information you supply. Your presence encourages and empowers others. Your motivations are on display; you are more easily seen as a patriot than a partisan. And you aren’t just passing on information. You are bearing witness, at risk to yourself.
As one who has been there, my counsel is to think practically, not emotionally. Think larger than yourself, and think larger than political gossip. If I had the chance, I would remind every potential leaker or whistleblower their oath of service was to the Constitution, not to any particular leader or party, neither the one in, nor out, of power. So act on principle, not ego or revenge or ambition; the power to disclose carries with it a responsibility to act ethically. Your conscience will then be bulletproof, something very important as you will spend a lot of time in there. No guarantees, but an ethical disclosure may be easier to defend as well.
People of conscience, leakers and whistleblowers alike, we’re made. We’re made by what the government does and fails to do, and by what we witness. If government acted as the Founders expected it should, we would not be here, like mushrooms that didn’t pop up on a dry lawn.
It’s what all of us share: a love of country, if not necessarily its politicians. It’s in your hands to be on the right side of this struggle. One courageous act of conscience can make a difference in an America gone astray. That will be your anchor on an unsettling and fearful journey. I made a choice to be a whistleblower. I’d do it again. To me, the juice was worth the squeeze. You?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!