Five Whistleblowers on What It Takes to Risk It All
The impeachment of Donald Trump began with a whistleblower. What kind of person is willing to lose everything to reveal the truth?
On August 12, 2019, an unnamed whistleblower submitted a nine-page letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The letter-writer, a Trump administration insider, described a now-infamous phone call in which President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for dirt on Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden. This quid pro quo struck at the heart of Trump’s presidency. It spurred weeks of investigations that have led here, to Trump’s Senate impeachment trial.
While the Ukraine whistleblower has so far chosen to remain anonymous, others who’ve been in a similar position — putting their lives on hold to expose corruption — understand what the inside of that crucible is like. GEN spoke with five whistleblowers about how it felt to weigh commitment to their values against their own solvency, status, and well-being. Telling the truth upended not just their everyday lives, but often their faith that institutions could live up to their founding principles.
These whistleblowers, from a variety of professional backgrounds, showed a resolute willingness to do what most of us only think we will. In studies, only a small sliver of the population — less than 10% — submit a report about wrongdoing when given the chance. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given what extraordinarily social creatures humans are and how much we depend on group cohesion to survive.
The primacy of the group is so strong that our first instinct is often to eject those who expose its internal rot. Whistleblowers who experience this kind of primitive shunning can attest that the consequences are devastating. Many describe the intense repercussions of speaking out, including nightmares, panic attacks, and crushing depression. Some who are lauded in public never again find employment in their field. Others are literally reduced to begging on the streets.
Why do whistleblowers stick to their principles when so many would cry uncle? Research hints that what allows them to weather the emotional storm — and the losses in status and security — is their commitment to an unusual hierarchy of values. People who prize justice over loyalty are more likely to call out corruption even if it means they’ll take a social or professional hit. Those who choose the consensus position, allegiance to the group, are more likely to stay silent.
A kind of tunnel vision seems necessary, too. Whistleblowers report that if they’d known the full extent of the whirlwind their reports would unleash, they might have talked themselves into staying quiet. Instead, they focused on doing the next immediate right thing — making the phone call, knocking on the supervisor’s door, testifying before Congress — and trusting that they could handle whatever followed.
Is the end result worth the sacrifice of speaking out? For many whistleblowers, that almost seems beside the point. It’s enough for them to know that they spoke the truth — and that they resisted the temptation to knuckle under when the stakes were inhumanly high. Despite the abuse whistleblowers take, keeping mum about injustice can fester more in the long run. “It’s very difficult not to speak up,” says whistleblower Wendy Addison. “You cannot undo the failure to act.”
Confronting the EPA: Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Once a rising star at the Environmental Protection Agency, Coleman-Adebayo blew the whistle on her employer after the agency ignored health effects South African workers had suffered — including respiratory, skin, and stomach problems — while mining vanadium for the American company Vametco. In 1998, Coleman-Adebayo filed suit against the EPA for discriminating against her after she came forward. She ultimately left the EPA, but her case put a public spotlight on worker abuse and the unfair treatment of whistleblowers.
The goal of the EPA is to save the planet, and part of saving the planet is saving humankind. When I first found out about vanadium, and that a U.S. corporation owned the plant, I thought, “Wow, how lucky can we be? We have a U.S. corporation. We can pick up the phone and call, begin a discussion about how we work together to solve this problem.” We can finally prove to the world that we have closed the chapter on supporting practices that were harmful to the people of South Africa. I really thought the agency was going to jump on it.
When I first raised this issue, I think I was the only one in the room that didn’t realize the extractive industry is a sacred cow. No one really cared about the people. This was all about business, how to window dress the same old policy in new clothes. People would dive into their offices headfirst because no one wanted to be seen with me. I walked into a bathroom, and a woman in the stall heard me talking and literally cut off her urine stream. She could not even be in the same bathroom with me.
I think it’s important for people not to take on the role of the Lone Ranger. Get organizations to fight these kinds of battles, as opposed to individuals.
In many ways, I’m not sure I had a choice in blowing the whistle. I would have had to stop being me. Being successful at the EPA, at any job that I had, was never at the top of my agenda. Part of my calculus was never how this was going to affect my career. I was fired, and I always considered that such a badge of honor. I was prepared to make the sacrifice because what had happened in South Africa was so perverted and sick that I couldn’t imagine leaving a world for my children where that issue was not addressed. People were being injured, and they were dying. The sacrifice I was making was fairly small compared to the sacrifices I saw.
When I blew the whistle, there would have been a sense of “what are you afraid of?” Now people know that the stakes are very high. I think it’s important for people not to take on the role of the Lone Ranger. Get organizations to fight these kinds of battles, as opposed to individuals. It’s too easy for a government to crush an individual.
Unmasking the NSA: Thomas Drake
A former senior official at the U.S. National Security Agency, Drake spoke out in 2010 against a secret NSA program called Trailblazer, which collected extensive digital data on Americans without a warrant, and against other surveillance programs. After Drake shared unclassified NSA information with a reporter, the government accused him under the Espionage Act of “willful retention of national defense information.” In 2011, the government dropped all felony charges against him.
It’s important to understand, none of this was out of naïveté, none of it was knee-jerk. Some people think I was a disgruntled employee. I had taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. That oath I didn’t take lightly.
Five days after 9/11, Vice President Cheney was on television saying we’re gonna go to the dark side. I knew what that meant — a whole series of unconstitutional orders were being issued because of 9/11. I knew saying anything that would contradict these decisions, particularly the decision to bypass the Constitution, would be fraught with enormous peril. I found myself realizing very quickly that I was going to have to defend the Constitution against my own government.
We each are sovereign as individuals. If we have some ability to bend the long arc of history toward justice, that’s what’s at stake.
I confronted NSA from within very early on, within a couple of weeks of 9/11. I got marked as an insider threat, a dissident, someone that they couldn’t trust. The moment of truth was the first week in October. I ended up in this incredible conversation with the lead attorney in the general counsel’s office at NSA, Vito Potenza. I said, “What are we doing violating the Constitution?” He said, “You don’t understand. Everything’s different. Exigent conditions.” Then he says — the surveillance regime was referred to as The Program — “The White House has approved The Program. It’s all legal.”
I made a fateful choice to go to the press. I became the scapegoat, the focus of a mass security investigation. One of the FBI agents said, “Can you come down to our facility outside of D.C.? We have some more questions.” I was in this room with no windows. They brought in the chief prosecutor. He said, “How would you like to spend the rest of your life in prison, Mr. Drake, unless you cooperate with us?” In that moment, your entire life is flying in front of you. It was a very dark place, this moment where the full weight of the government was on me.
There were people worried that I was on a suicide mission. I said, “Don’t worry.” We each are sovereign as individuals. If we have some ability to bend the long arc of history toward justice, that’s what’s at stake. Your life literally will never be the same. You’re risking it all. And yet, who better?
Taking on Big Tobacco: Jeffrey Wigand
A former executive at Brown and Williamson, a tobacco company in Louisville, Kentucky, Wigand appeared on 60 Minutes in 1996 to reveal that the company was burying research about nicotine’s health effects and adding chemicals like ammonia to cigarettes to make them more addictive. He also testified in the state of Mississippi’s case against Big Tobacco, dodging death threats along the way. Wigand’s story was dramatized in Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider, starring Russell Crowe.
I came to Brown and Williamson after 20-plus years in the health care industry — we had a different ethos. At the company, there was a deliberate and conscious practice toward addicting consumers. The main way the business operated was by the acquisition of children who were unable to make responsible decisions. The average worker understood that the product was addictive. They couldn’t use certain language; many times it was policed by lawyers. If I was to go out and give a talk, the lawyers wanted to read what I was going to say.
I knew the one factor that would protect me was the truth. I had maintained my associations with CBS and 60 Minutes. I was going to come clean. However, I did not do that without some measure of protection. I needed to get out of Louisville, and I needed a lawyer.
Not all whistleblowers wind up in the trash can. But during the process, you’re very close to that trash can.
All of a sudden, the contents of the 60 Minutes interview started leaking out. [Wigand had taped the interview but it had not yet aired.] I had bodyguards — people were following me. I couldn’t ride my bicycle, couldn’t go shopping. I carried my own handgun. Thoughts go through your mind: What am I gonna do? I was apprised by a lawyer that the tobacco industry had gone to court, and, should I testify in Mississippi, I would be held in contempt and could be incarcerated. I was given the opportunity to shut it down and go back home. I said, “No, we’re here, let’s go.” I basically said my typical brusque, Fuck it, let’s do it.
Not all whistleblowers wind up in the trash can. But during the process, you’re very close to that trash can. And unless you have support behind you, you will be in that trash can.
My sanctuary was my family. I never had a regret. I’m a better-off person today — I know I can weather a storm. We start again, and guess what? It’s not that difficult.
Upending the FBI: Coleen Rowley
A year after the 9/11 attacks, Rowley, then an FBI agent at the bureau’s Minneapolis office, wrote an explosive memo to the Joint Intelligence Committee and then-FBI director Robert Mueller. The memo described how, prior to the attacks, FBI headquarters had ignored and mishandled tips from the Minneapolis office about terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui, who went through flight training in Minnesota. Rowley retired from the FBI in 2004.
The number one feeling is extreme anxiety, the appreciation that you’re going against the entity that you work for, and that by telling the truth, they’re going to be mad at you. In 2002, I knew I was going to have to talk to the staff of the Joint Intelligence Committee. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to tell the truth.” Three thousand people died on 9/11, and they were covering up the truth about it.
The next day, I worked an 11-hour day. I thought, boy, am I gonna sleep good tonight. But I got up at 3:30, at 4 o’clock in the morning. I said, “You know what, this is ridiculous. I’m going to start jotting things down.” By the end of the day, I had a few pages of notes. Then I started thinking, “Well, why don’t I just write this up? As long as I’m giving this to the Joint Intelligence Committee, I might as well give it to Internal Affairs and copy it to the director.”
Some of these officials are very, very dismissive of the law.
I kept adding to the memo. Toward the end, I asked for whistleblower protection. That was one of my very last thoughts. I suppose, in my head, I thought it wouldn’t hurt. I wasn’t leaking the memo — I was giving it to the senators on the Joint Intelligence Committee. How could I get into trouble?
In 2001, we were true believers, not quite appreciating that people in power would be this bad. Behind closed doors, some of these officials are very, very dismissive of the law. I was not aware of the extent of how the executive branch would treat congressional oversight as the enemy. I was more of a Dudley Do-Right. I was two years before retirement, and I lost my original pension, health care, everything. It was pretty drastic in terms of the consequences.
The majority of people think, “I’ll be fired,” so they keep their mouths shut. A person of any level of conscience, when you’re weighing these risks, I do think you have to take into consideration how you are going to be able to live with yourself.
Going after the CEOs: Wendy Addison
As treasurer of the South African company LeisureNet, which operated a network of gyms, Addison blew the whistle in 2000 on two joint LeisureNet chief executives who were siphoning cash from the company. They were sentenced to seven years in jail for fraud. But speaking out derailed Addison’s life for even longer. After LeisureNet fired her, she lost a job in London and spent months begging on the streets. She now heads the corporate development firm SpeakOut SpeakUp.
My red flags had accumulated over nine years. The tipping point was a request to begin a tranche of hundreds of millions into a bank account in Jersey, which was irregular at best. We were allowed to take 50 million rand [about $7.4 million in 2000] out of the company into another country — that was it. They gave me about 320 pages of information, all in German. For me, this was another red flag. They knew I couldn’t understand German.
I remember thundering down the corridor to the offices with all these emotions. The joint CEOs were not just colleagues of mine, they were friends. I remember them reminding me that I was a single parent, and it would be a great shame if I were to lose my job. I remember thinking, “I’ll go to the financial director. He’s a good guy.” When I shot off down the corridor, it was like this whisper network, “Wendy’s coming,” and he was given safe harbor in other people’s offices.
My red flags had accumulated over nine years.
All along, I’m not thinking, “I’m going to blow the whistle.” I began to justify why I shouldn’t say anything: “Shouldn’t I just look the other way? Just do my job?” It felt like it was a hurricane coming, and I was going to be flattened. I decided to make an anonymous call to the South African Exchange Control Board to ask them if I was correct in thinking the way I was thinking. The woman said, “Yes, it would be breaking the law if you did that.”
So I simply didn’t transfer the money. Then, without any warning, there was a dawn raid on the head office by the Control Board. Very quickly, it was ascertained that I made the phone call to bring them. They fired me. People could discuss me on the radio, talk about my mental health. How dare I have said something against these gods of entrepreneurship.
When I was living on the streets, my little boy came back from school. He was very upset because he had done his oral exam and the teacher suggested he had lied. He said it was called “My Hero” — I thought he had spoken about Nelson Mandela. He said, “No, the story was about you.” Thinking, “Gosh, if that’s all I get from this, that’s good enough.” This is my legacy, and I’m quite proud of that.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.