It seems like another skeleton falls out of the United States’ closet every day. Whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork, and the government is struggling to keep the scandals contained. Still, tattling on the powers that be is nothing new. Love ’em or hate ’em, here are ten of the most famous US government whistleblowers.
Gary Webb: The Dark Alliance
In 1996, Gary Webb, a writer for the San Jose Mercury News, published a series of articles known as “Dark Alliance.” The articles detailed how the CIA turned a blind eye as Nicaraguan drug traffickers sold and distributed crack cocaine in Los Angeles throughout the 1980s. It also described how the Reagan administration protected drug dealers from prosecution.
According to Webb, the CIA allowed the traffickers to ship large amounts of drugs into the country because the profits were being used to fund the Reagan-supported Contras (a rebel group opposing the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua).
Naturally, insinuating the crack cocaine epidemic of the ’80s was partially caused by the government was a controversial stance—especially when the Reagan administration was already tainted by the Iran-Contra affair. Because of this, Webb’s articles were initially viewed with contempt by the government and his fellow journalists. Speaking out caused him to lose his position at San Jose Mercury News and he was never able to find a job writing daily news again.
In 2004, he was found dead with two gunshot wounds to the head. The official cause of death was considered suicide. Although Webb’s family is confident his depression and inability to find a job drove him to suicide, there are many who believe he was murdered.
Unfortunately, Webb was not vindicated until after his death, as recent internal investigations and declassified documents have affirmed his Dark Alliance reports.
Mark Felt: Watergate
Arguably the most famous whistleblower in US history, FBI agent Mark Felt was responsible for feeding sensitive details about the Watergate scandal to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Felt was an anonymous source who went by the nickname “Deep Throat,” and he didn’t reveal himself as the informant until 2005—officially ending a public 30 year guessing game.
As most folks know, Felt told Woodward about the Nixon Administration’s illegal attempts to spy on political opponents at the Watergate Hotel, as well as a widespread spying and sabotage ring meant to help Nixon win re-election. Felt also believed he was passed over as director of the FBI (following the death of J. Edgar Hoover) because Nixon wanted a man in charge who was easier to control.
There were many players involved in uncovering Watergate, and Woodward and his partner Carl Bernstein later admitted they were surprised people became so captivated by Deep Throat—he’d mostly just confirmed info they’d gotten from other sources. Nevertheless, receiving confirmation from the second in command at the FBI was just what they needed to legitimize their stories.
In 2008, Felt died peacefully in his home at the age of 95.
Daniel Ellsberg: the Pentagon Papers
In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg disclosed the Pentagon Papers and confirmed what many US citizens had suspected for decades: the government lied about its actions and involvement in the Vietnam War through four consecutive presidential administrations.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara originally commissioned the papers in 1967 in an effort to create a history of the Vietnam War and a sort of “what not to do” account for future administrations. However, as the research grew more extensive, those involved realized the government had repeatedly lied to its people. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, worked on the study and became fed up with the dishonesty, subterfuge, and seemingly endless war. So Ellsberg leaked the top secret papers to The New York Times, which published a series of articles on the report’s shocking findings.
Some of the worst evidence found in the papers was:
• The administration had strong intelligence that Vietnam was a war they could not win, but they joined anyway.
• The US had no real interest in helping South Vietnam and entered the war only for political maneuvers.
• Leaving the war before a pro-American government was installed was never considered.
• The John F. Kennedy administration had plans to overthrow South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem.
• On the campaign trail, President Johnson promised to scale back the war even though he had specific plans to bomb North Vietnam.
• The US expanded the war and conducted bombings and raids without informing the American people.
The list goes on and on, but it boils down to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all lying about Vietnam.
Ellsberg’s whistleblowing earned him and Russo a front row seat in front of a Los Angeles grand jury. They were charged with espionage, conspiracy, and theft, but the case was declared a mistrial when it was discovered the government illegally tapped Ellsberg’s communications . . .
Thomas Drake: Trailblazer
How did Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency (NSA), end up working retail at an Apple store? By doing such dastardly things as trying to protect the 4th Amendment and eliminate wasteful spending. Yes, a man who was once privy to the nation’s greatest secrets and technological strategies found himself showing people how to use the latest apps on their iPhone.
In reality, the gig at the Apple store was likely a relief for Drake, considering he was once being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and facing 35 years in prison. He came into the government’s crosshairs after disclosing unclassified information about Trailblazer, a $1.2 billion dollar NSA program that infringed on people’s right to privacy.
The government initially designed Trailblazer as a method of sifting through the increasing amounts of electronic communications created by the Internet, cell phones, and elsewhere. While having a program to fill such a need is understandable, there was an alternative program (known as Thinthread) that was more efficient, only cost $3 million, and didn’t violate the privacy of ordinary citizens. Although Drake continually advocated using Thinthread, the bloated and unlawful Trailblazer system was adopted instead.
In 2011, the NSA’s case against Drake collapsed and all felony charges against him were dropped. He never spent a day in jail and was only charged with the misdemeanor “exceeding the authorized use of a computer.”
Bunnatine (Bunny) Greenhouse: US Army Corps of Engineers/Halliburton
The US government’s cozy relationship with the oilfield services company Halliburton has frequently roused suspicion. Things looked even worse in 2003 when Bunny Greenhouse, the chief contracting officer at the US Army Corp of Engineers, came forward saying the government showed favoritism to Halliburton and granted them a contract to rebuild the oilfield facilities in Iraq.
So, what was the problem with the contract? It was a no-bid arrangement, which means no other company had the opportunity to offer a price for the work. The Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR) was simply pushed through the usually cumbersome bureaucratic channels with no competition and given a seven billion dollar five-year contract. It was Greenhouse’s job to monitor and approve such contracts, and she argued through the whole process that the arrangement was unjust. How was she rewarded for doing her job and trying to save the US money? She received poor performance reviews, demoted, and stripped of her top secret clearance.
After feeling discouraged and increasingly harassed, Greenhouse went public with the information while also revealing that Halliburton frequently overcharged the Pentagon, and Donald Rumsfeld’s office controlled all aspects of the shady arrangement.
Greenhouse eventually filed a lawsuit against the US Army Corp of Engineers for her treatment. In 2011, her employers settled the case for 970 thousand dollars, which reflected full restitution for lost wages, compensatory damages, and attorney fees.
Coleen Rowley: FBI
Immediately after the September 11th tragedy, Americans were dumbfounded and wondering how a primitive group of terrorists could unleash an attack on US soil without drawing suspicion from any of the country’s intelligence agencies. It seemed impossible, and it was.
While government agencies feigned utter surprise, FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley immediately came forward explaining that her Minneapolis field office knew Zacarias Moussaoui (one of the 9/11 conspirators) had paid eight thousand dollars in cash for Boeing 747 flying lessons and was planning a suicide hijacking. However, her requests to search Moussaoui’s room and computer were denied by her superiors.
Frustrated by the mishandling of information before and after the attacks, Rowley wrote a 13-page memorandum and hand-delivered copies to FBI Director Robert Mueller and two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Among other things, the letter claims the bureau deliberately thwarted efforts which may have stopped the September 11 tragedy. Time magazine printed full details of the memo in its June 3, 2002 edition titled, “The Bombshell Memo.”
Rowley also testified in front of the 9/11 commission about the debacle and wasn’t shy in saying the deadly attacks could have been delayed or completely avoided if her office had been allowed to properly investigate the suspected terrorist.
Rowley retired from the FBI in 2004 and was named one of Time’s “Persons of the Year” in 2002.
Bradley Manning: United States Army
US Army Private Bradley Manning is responsible for what some have called the biggest leak of secret military data ever. His actions also helped put WikiLeaks on the map, as he provided the organization with hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Because Manning was a known disgruntled and often bullied worker, there is some debate regarding his intentions for the leak. Was he really trying to inform the public about crimes, brutality, and corruption within the government, or was he simply seeking revenge on his military associates, which he described as a “bunch of hyper-masculine, trigger happy, ignorant rednecks.” Two of his superiors even advised not sending Manning to Iraq (where he eventually accessed the secret documents), because he was considered a “risk to himself and possibly others.” However, Manning was one of the few qualified intelligence analysts available, and evidently the Army thought his skills were worth the risk. Obviously, their gamble didn’t pay off.
Among the things Manning revealed were:
• A secret video, nicknamed “collateral murder” that showed US air crew laughing after killing dozens of people (including reporters and civilians) in an air strike.
• Detailed records of the civilian death toll in Iraq (even though the military repeatedly said there was no record). Out of 109,000 deaths logged in a six year period, 66,081 were unarmed civilians.
• US Soldiers committed horrific acts of torture on Iraqi prisoners, and despite hundreds of filed complaints, authorities never investigated.
• US defense contractor DynCorp was involved in child trafficking.
Currently Manning is being imprisoned by the military and is facing 21 charges, including “aiding the enemy,” which comes with a life sentence. Yes . . . Manning is in jail for exposing the US government paying a company that sold child slaves.
Russell Tice: National Security Agency/Defense Intelligence Agency
Does the NSA really care about the phone conversation you had with your grandma or the embarrassing pics you messaged your significant other? Apparently so.
According to Russell Tice, an ex-NSA intelligence officer, “The National Security Agency had access to all Americans’ communications—faxes, phone calls, and their computer communications. It didn’t matter whether you were in Kansas, in the middle of the country, and you never made foreign communications at all. They monitored all communications.”
Besides illegally wiretapping and eavesdropping on ordinary citizens, it seems US intelligence agencies are especially curious about the goings on of journalists. Tice says he personally witnessed communications channels of journalists being recorded 24/7 and, although he’s not sure what they did with the info, he’s confident it’s digitized and in a database somewhere.
In June 2013, Tice also divulged that the NSA even conducted unconstitutional domestic spying on judges, military officials, members of congress, and more. Perhaps most shocking was the revelation that, back in 2004, his office was given the task of wiretapping a “40-something-year-old wannabe senator” from Illinois. Five years later the wannabe senator became president of the United States. And now he’s listening in on you!
Tice was labeled “paranoid” by the NSA, demoted, and finally fired. He continues to tell his story to the media, Congress, and anyone who’ll listen.
Edward Snowden: National Security Agency
Edward Snowden worked as a technical contractor for the NSA, and is currently making headlines for disclosing info on warrantless mass surveillance programs conducted by the US and British governments. Essentially he is whistleblowing about the same types of things Russ Tice did in 2005, but for whatever reason, it’s awoken the sleeping masses this time around. People everywhere are wondering why and to what extent the government is intruding into their private lives.
Some of the most shocking info Snowden has leaked is:
• An order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to Verizon instructing them to hand over all metadata for all US customer phone calls. Note—that is allphone calls made by US citizens. Every phone call every minute of every day. Did you just talk to your mom? The NSA now has a record of that. Oh—and if you’re not in America, they are listening to you too if you spoke to an American or had any phone conversation with anyone in the world that passed through the US phone system.
• The NSA program PRISM, which allows the NSA to monitor people’s email, web searches, and overall internet use (has direct access to Google, Facebook, and Apple).
• NSA’s record of hacking into China’s computers, universities, and mobile phone companies.
As of June 2013, Snowden is country-hopping and trying to find a safe haven to avoid extradition. If brought back to the US he will face multiple charges, two of which fall under the Espionage Act: unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communications of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person.
Although some on the left regard him as a traitor, most view Snowden’s disclosures as the most important in American history. Even Daniel Ellsberg said there has never been a more crucial leak (including his own Pentagon Papers). On his blog he wrote, “Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an ‘executive coup’ against the US constitution.” Change we can believe in? Well it sure is a change from the days when every US citizen wasn’t spied on by their government!
Peter Buxtun: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
Today, we get our feathers ruffled when we learn the government is secretly spying on ordinary citizens. However, that injustice pales in comparison to what happened between 1932 and 1972 when the US Public Health Service tricked people who were already down on their luck into becoming human lab rats.
It began when the US Public Health Service teamed up with the Tuskegee Institute to study the long term effects of syphilis on the human body. They contacted a group of 600 poor, African American men (399 of which had syphilis) and offered to give them free health care. However, this “health care” never involved treating the men for syphilis or even informing them they had the disease. Instead, the clinicians told the men they had “bad blood,” an ambiguous and unscientific term for a variety of illnesses. Making matters worse, by the 1940s, penicillin was a proven cure for syphilis—yet none of the men received it.
Thanks to Peter Buxton, a 27-year-old employee of the US Public Health Service, the 40 year study was put to an end in 1972 when Buxton revealed information about the experiment to the Washington Star. He went public with the details after filing multiple complaints within his organization and didn’t receive a response. Unfortunately, dozens of men had died and many of their wives and children were infected by that time.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton offered an official apology for the racist and inhumane study, but it seems the damage was already done.