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by William H. Benson

February 8, 2018

In December of 1773, near the time of the Boston Tea Party, Benjamin Franklin admitted that he had passed on to the Boston Gazette twenty letters that the Massachusetts governor, Thomas Hutchison had written, calling for an “abridgment of the colonists’ rights.” In so doing, Franklin acted as a whistleblower, before the word was a word, or our country was a country.

In 1777, during the American Revolutionary War, ten naval officers, including Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, signed a petition that they addressed to the Continental Congress that stated the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy, Ezek Hopkins “treated British prisoners of war in the most inhuman and barbarous manner.”

On July 30, 1778, Congress responded to Shaw and Marven’s petition by passing a resolution that stated, “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, to give the earliest information to Congress of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states.”

This was the United States’ first attempt to protect those who reveal to the public damaging information. July 30 is now marked as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.

In the last fifty years, we have witnessed a number of “whistleblowers,” a word that the activist Ralph Nader may have coined. As in a basketball game, the referee blows the whistle to call a foul.

On April 25, 1970, Frank Serpico, a New York City policeman, contributed to the New York Times reports that stated that the New York City Police Department was rife with corruption and fraud.

Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND corporation employee, copied 7000 pages of top secret documents when he worked at the Pentagon. The documents indicated that an early date—in the Kennedy and Johnson years—Pentagon officials and the presidents suspected that the U.S. military could not win the war in Vietnam, even though they continued to assure the American public that they could.

In mid-June, 1971, Ellsberg delivered the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

Some historians consider W. Mark Felt—the former FBI agent and informant known as “Deep Throat” during the Watergate crisis—as the most famous of all whistleblowers. For months in 1973 and 1974, Felt passed on secret information about President Nixon’s coverup of the burglary at the Watergate Hotel to Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein, reporters at the Washington Post.

Karen Silkwood, an employee at an Oklahoma nuclear facility, raised concerns about the health and safety of the employees who worked with plutonium. Witnesses stated that the documents that she had lifted from her employer lay in a binder on the seat beside her the day she was killed when another driver rear-ended her, November 13, 1974. The documents were never found.

Harry Markopolos alerted authorities three times—in 2000, 2001, and 2005—about Bernard Madoff’s scheme, but they did nothing. Markopolos entitled his book, No One Would Listen.

On April 10, 2010, Bradley Manning, a U. S. Army soldier in Iraq, working as an intelligence analyst, stole from the military and then downloaded to WikiLeaks 734,119 diplomatic cables and Army reports. He was sentenced to 35 years at Fort Leavenworth, but served only 7, after Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence for time served.

In June of 2013, Edward Snowden stole 1.7 million classified documents from the National Security Agency that revealed the Federal government’s continuing surveillance, through the computer and internet, of American citizens. Fearing an imminent arrest, Snowden fled to Russia, where officials have granted him asylum ever since.

On a TED talk in 2014, remote from Russia via computer, Snowden made a series of startling statements. “NSA breaks privacy rules thousands of times per year.” “Your rights matter because you never know when you are going to need them.” “You have a right to privacy.”

In 2015, an anonymous individual, who calls him or herself John Doe, passed on to a German newspaper, 11.5 million documents taken from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian legal firm that specializes in setting up shell corporations in the British Virgin Islands to hide money from legal authorities. This treasure of documents revealed how the rich and powerful shelter their secrets.

Other journalists from across the globe received private invitations to look at the Panamanian Papers, and then on April 3, 2016, together the 100 plus journalists published their stories.

Whistleblowers face a variety of fates. Some are shot. Some are killed. Some are imprisoned. Some are not believed. Some remain anonymous. Some seek asylum elsewhere. Some suffer no consequences for their actions. One thing they all share though is moral strength and bravery. Edward Snowden said it best, “I am comfortable with the decision I made.”