“It is natural to disagree and engage in spirited debate—this has been our custom since the time of our Founding Fathers—but we are better than callow and cowardly attacks.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, October 29, 2019
“Whistleblower began as a word literally referring to someone who blows a whistle. Later it became associated with referees overseeing sporting events. Soon after, the phrase, blow the whistle gained metaphorical meaning as “calling attention to something, such as criminal activity, kept secret.”
“Whistleblower: A History,” Merriam-Webster Online
Like many of the ceremonies that once brought us together and gave us our bearings, the Annual Whistleblowers Appreciation Awards Banquet cannot be held in 2020. The pandemic has led to the cancellation of many events that I wanted to attend, but this was a particular disappointment.
I had hoped to serve as the M.C. who confers the Whistleblower of the Year Award. My plan was to start the award presentation by reading the unforgettable statement that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman made when he testified at the Impeachment hearings on October 29, 2019. Before he recounted what he had heard when the President of the United States talked with the President of Ukraine in a phone conversation, Lt. Col. Vindman spoke words of reassurance to his father, who was not present in the hearing room but watching on TV.
“Dad,” he said, the fact that “I’m sitting here today in the US Capitol talking to our elected professionals is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union. Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth.”
After reading that quotation, my plan was to affirm his statement: Living in a nation that respects the rights of people who follow the mandate of integrity and conscience and speak out, we have a privilege that is out of the reach of many people on earth.
And yet I would have had to note that Lt. Col. Vindman’s reassurance to his father proved over-confident. On February 7, 2020, he was fired from his job at the White House and escorted out of the building. On July 8, 2020, he resigned from the U.S. military; it had become clear that his promotion would be blocked from above. The recipient of a Purple Heart, Lt. Col. Vindman had been wounded in Iraq while leading infantrymen in combat.
Making a sudden shift from this individual’s story to the larger context of history, I would then have asked everyone attending the Whistleblowers Appreciation Awards Banquet to join me in exploring two premises, arriving at a conclusion on which the nation’s well-being rests.
The First Premise
Over the last two centuries, governmental agencies at all levels, as well as companies and corporations of every imaginable size, have multiplied and grown in power. When a society has created such an array of organizations and institutions, capable of doing a great deal of good and also capable of doing a great deal of harm, then the need for Americans to define a clear and protected role for whistleblowers is steadily more compelling.
The Second Premise
Unless human nature improves dramatically, these organizations and institutions will provide settings where bad behavior will proliferate, in direct proportion to the increasing power and influence of groups organized by chains of command and layered levels of authority.
The Conclusion Reached from these Premises
The need for whistleblowers—people of integrity who will call our attention to troubles that range from inefficiency and petty tyranny, to corruption and abuse of power—grows ever more urgent. Observing the dramatic decline of trust in governmental agencies and in corporations, comparatively few commentators have noticed that the insecure status of whistleblowers is a major factor in the decline of trust. One non-negotiable precondition of faith in government and business is the knowledge that when things go awry, people who observe malfunction can bring it to light without becoming subject to retaliation.
And that is why the Annual Whistleblowers Appreciation Awards Banquet serves such an important purpose for the United States.
Returning to Reality after a Pleasant Visit to a Fantasy
As the skeptical knew from the start, and as even the most trusting reader has now come to recognize, there is no such thing as an Annual Whistleblowers Appreciation Awards Banquet.
But the line between fantasy and reality has never been anything but porous. There is no reason why such a banquet couldn’t take place (and there is also no reason why I wouldn’t be an acceptable choice as MC—more on that in a moment).
And yet the ideas behind this banquet could use a little more work.
Before we get to work on designing the trophies and choosing the winners, we should persuade as many of our fellow citizens as possible to join us in a consensus that supports these principles: 1) the concerns raised by whistleblowers should undergo careful evaluation and appraisal, without foregone conclusions of their accuracy or falsehood; 2) since they usually raise their concerns in a setting of concealment, whistleblowers have to recognize that the reassertion of transparency and the disclosure of more information may mean that the charges they raised will require modification or even retraction (to the point that is a good idea for whistleblowers to practice saying, “I stand corrected”); and 3) whistleblowers who have acted with integrity deserve protection from punishment and retaliation.
We have reached a point where the American people really need to figure this out.
To a significant degree, mistrust in our institutions, public and private, has proliferated in the last quarter-century because of our failure to arrive at a well-thought-out “social contract” for the actions of conscience-driven whistleblowers. This is the question that we must test: if we had more empowered whistleblowers, would the provocations and justifications for distrust diminish?
Getting the relationship between society and whistleblowers into better operating order stands a good chance of turning out to be one-stop problem-solving. In other words, a clear understanding of the role of whistleblowers will enhance the nation’s ability to deal with every other problem.
Mistaking the Whistleblower for “the Problem”
This is the usual exchange between whistleblowers and the people who wish they would go away.
Whistleblowers: We cannot be silent because we are trying to save the ship.
The Opposition: We will do what we can to keep you from speaking because we have x-rayed your motives, and we know that you are not trying to save the ship, you are trying to sink it.
With that dialogue setting the terms of the encounter between whistleblowers and their opponents, whistleblowers are susceptible to being portrayed, not as the people bringing attention to a problem, but as the problem itself.
Under those circumstances, whistleblowers probably shouldn’t waste their time on a sense of injustice and victimization. Of course, they’ll be treated unjustly and be victimized! They’re whistleblowers!
Easy enough for a tenured professor to say.
Not My First Rodeo; In Other Words, Been There, Done That.
If I had not taken the title, “Not My First Rodeo,” for this blog, I would have been stuck with “Been There, Done That,” a title so dreary that it would have left me despairing every time I settled down to write. This would have added up to a twisted accomplishment: “Been There, Done That” would have been recognized as the most lackluster and fatigued title ever inflicted on a collection of written words. Even worse, “Been There, Done That” would have ratified the oft-stated proposition that history repeats itself, revolving in predictable circles in the manner of a carousel or a Ferris wheel.
In contrast, “Not My First Rodeo” gets a lot closer to capturing the way people, events, and trends catapult into being and rocket around the arena in patterns that never resolve into the predictable patterns of a circle, much less of a straight line.
But when it comes to speaking out when conscience required this of me, I have certifiably “been there and done that.”
I was still a newcomer in Colorado when I wrote a report on Nichols Hall, a campus dormitory named in honor of a leader at the Sand Creek Massacre. For several months, my report—as well as my character and credibility—became a topic of public debate. “Nichols Hall” became “Cheyenne-Arapaho Hall,” but not before I had learned a lot about the rewards and penalties of the outspoken life.
In the years since then, I have spoken out in a range of circumstances where silence seemed the much wiser choice to plenty of other people. I have sought an intervention in a situation in which a person with authority often yielded to intense anger in dealings with subordinates. I have been the one dissenter when a professional association moved to make a significant investment in a project that I did not find well-chosen. I have withdrawn, with a forthright explanation of my decision, from a well-funded scientific research project weakened by deficiencies in a major component of its work. And, very much on public record (we’ll get back to this), I have expressed my concerns about a significant state institution.
And there’s more, but that’ll do it for now.
This brings me to make two important admissions. First, every one of these efforts failed. Second, I do not regret any of these efforts.
I cannot feel regret because my expressions of concern have been validated and confirmed. But my immunity to regret also rests on the fact that I have felt dramatically better each time I have brought my actions and my conscience back into alignment by speaking out. Although I have never been to a chiropractor, it is my guess that accepting the risks that come with honesty makes a person feel very much as if a chiropractor has worked over some part of the body that has been out of alignment and put it back to where it needs to be.
Honesty may not be the best policy, but in certain circumstances, it offers the only way to feel at peace and to sleep well at night.
As a serial whistleblower, I have found courage in knowing that thousands of others have been my predecessors. In episodes beyond counting, in many places and times, human beings have risked their own comfort and even their safety, and let conscience guide them.
What do whistleblowers want?
We want the organizations that we have seen as malfunctioning to improve. We would be relieved and cheered if the people who carried authority in those organizations showed an interest in repair, restoration, and redemption. Most whistleblowers have invested too much to care about petty vengeance and score-settling. On the contrary, we’d like to look at the organizations we criticized and have the pleasure of saying, “Things are better now.”
The dynamics of this attitude will carry a lot more force if I match it with an example.
In the short inventory I offered earlier of my efforts at whistleblowing, only one of those enterprises registered on public record, and so discussing it here will require no violation of confidence. Even better, History Colorado, the institution at the center of this example, has recently announced two initiatives that throw the door wide open for repair, restoration, and redemption. Whether History Colorado’s leadership will choose to go through that door remains to be seen, but the promise of the moment is compelling.
Several years ago, I was recruited to lend my name, knowledge, and connections to the cause of helping this state institution as it tried to enhance its capacity to serve the citizens.
That didn’t work.
After many efforts at raising my concerns in a behind-the-scenes manner, I gave up on strategic diplomacy, wrote two columns in the Denver Post, and spoke honestly to a Colorado Public Radio reporter. (Anyone who would like a refresher on this episode can find links to the relevant articles at the end of this blog posting.)
In the summer of 2018, in those very public statements, I invited the leadership of History Colorado to participate in a public forum with citizens of Colorado who cared about history. In this forum, the audience and I could ask polite, but clear questions about the principles and practices that guided History Colorado’s work. The Board and Executive Director could tell us what they saw as the institution’s weaknesses (if they saw any) and what they saw as the strengths that the citizens should appreciate.
Quite a number of Coloradans wrote me to say that they wanted to attend this forum.
Two years later, I am awaiting History Colorado’s response to my invitation.
So here’s the sad lesson the state historical society taught me: when it comes to fending off a whistleblower, stonewalling works.
But here’s the much happier lesson I have learned from other sources: It is never too late for an institution to break out of stonewalling, make a course correction, and thereby present the whistleblower with the actually exhilarating obligation to say, “I stand corrected.”
This may seem like another interlude of fantasy, but it’s not.
On August 27, History Colorado is going to host an online Summit called: Bold Women. Change History. The Summit. From the point of view of one particular bold woman who did not change History Colorado in the least, the description of the Summit offers a carnival of irony:
This online gathering celebrates bold women who take risks and innovate in ways worth replicating and who demonstrate a powerful spectrum of leadership. In short and energizing contributions, women leaders from many fields will share how they show up, create, disrupt, and transform our communities.
History Colorado, it’s never too late to prove a whistleblower wrong.
As it happens, I have some knowledge of the efforts undertaken by bold women to “create, disrupt, and transform our communities.” And so, on the chance that History Colorado’s leadership would like to try a “bold” experiment with repair, restoration, and redemption, I am keeping the evening of August 27 open.
A second History Colorado initiative carries even more promise. Called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” this project is a “year-long multi-venue series of programs and exhibitions that are as provocative as Democracy itself.”
Having refused to take part in a public forum with the Colorado citizenry, History Colorado seems a little short of fully qualified to serve as a credible host for a prolonged demonstration of “what democracy looks like.”
But it’s never too late to prove a whistleblower wrong.
A man named Tom Mueller (no, not that Mueller, though who knows, maybe a relative!) has written a book on whistleblowers called Crisis of Conscience. In summarizing his book, Mueller looks as if he is auditioning for an invitation to speak in the History Colorado “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” series.
“Whistle-blowing is democracy,” Tom Mueller said. “It’s freedom of speech. It’s independence of conscience — the kinds of things the framers had in mind” [yes, as you guessed, my italics!].
If History Colorado’s decision-makers opt for repair, restoration, and redemption by recruiting Tom Mueller as a speaker in their “incredible” series on democracy, the Center of the American West will be honored to co-sponsor his visit.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” is the guiding principle for whistleblowers worldwide.
Have You Considered Being a Whistleblower?
Imagine that it is high school parent/teacher night.
The teacher is meeting with the parents of a child who watches the world carefully, who speaks and writes with skill and clarity, and who moves through the world with an unusual bravery.
Near the end of the session, the parents say to the teacher, “We know that you cannot predict the future, but how do you see our daughter’s talents lining up? Is there a career where you can see her excelling?”
“I believe I can answer that question,” the teacher says. “I think she is going to be an excellent whistleblower.”
The parents’ spirits sink.
“Why would you say that?” they ask. “We have always thought she was a person who earned and retained the confidence of others and who had the highest level of integrity!”
“That,” says the teacher, “is exactly what I’m telling you. I didn’t say that her life was going to be easy, but I do feel certain that what she does will matter.”
The improbable and the implausible are constant presences in our world, and maybe a guidance counselor has felt moved to say a promising student who is interested in public service, “Have you considered becoming a whistleblower? Of course, your main goal is to be a doctor (or a lawyer or an engineer or a professor or an administrator or a software designer or a law enforcement officer or a military officer). But whatever career you choose, at some point, you may find that you need to be a whistleblower.”
So here’s the plan: a pamphlet to be made available, in both digital and print form, in guidance counselors’ offices and maybe distributed at school “career days.” A good share of this pamphlet, So You Want to Be a Whistleblower, will be answers to “Frequently Asked Questions Raised by Future Whistleblowers and Their Parents.”
- Do Whistleblowers Have an Image Problem?
In the early twenty-first century, nearly everyone has an image problem, and comparatively few people feel that they are seen by their fellow citizens in exactly the terms they would choose.
But here’s one big difference: the whole nation can lose out because of the severity of whistleblowers’ image problem.
Like participants in any vocation, whistleblowers do not get to choose their fellow practitioners. Quite a number of the most visible of whistleblowers are not particularly appealing or inspirational. Few people would want to claim kinship with the troubled souls who often end up in the national spotlight. In 2020, Michael Cohen and John Bolton seem to be particularly insistent in claiming that spotlight, and Linda Tripp and Edward Snowden—neither of them exactly role models for the young—seem to hold permanent places on the “Famous Whistleblowers” listings.
And then there’s a whole new domain of trouble brought into being by the internet. The multiple platforms of social media are well-populated by people who may well see themselves as brave whistleblowers exposing dreadful plots, schemes, and misdeeds, though they skip the commitment that responsible whistleblowers make to provide evidence and verification.
So it is not surprising that many Americans are not sure if whistleblowers are essential contributors to the public good, or if they are marginal, self-serving grandstanders.
But here’s the good news: if you choose this vocation, you will have the power—with your own careful conduct and with your integrity—to support and reinforce your image, and the image of your counterparts, as “essential contributors to the public good.”
- Why Does the Term “Whistleblower” Seem to Carry Such Negative Associations?
There’s no denying that the use of “whistleblower” as a pejorative and condemnatory term has long posed a serious problem, discouraging many people from taking up this line of public service. At the worst, the term gets degraded into the status of a synonym for “informer,” “tattle tale,” “snitch,” or “traitor.” (The only good news is that “rat fink” has faded from common usage.)
So the time has come to perform the maneuver called “reclaiming an epithet,” giving a beleaguered word a 180-degree reversal in tone and association, and making it clear that all those unappealing words just listed are not synonyms for “whistleblower.”
Here’s a definition ready to give a new standing and stature to the practice of speaking out with integrity:
Whistleblower: a person who has lived with a mounting sense that if she were to keep quiet about a problem that she has observed, she is going to feel terrible for a long time to come, and who therefore, after having tried to work “through channels,” accepts the risk of expressing her concerns openly and honestly.
The year 2020, in other words, is the right time to return to the word’s earlier history, when it meant a referee who blows the whistle to require a pause in the game in order to reckon with a violation of fair play. And yet, in contrast to referees in sports games, whistleblowers in society often deal with a context of concealment and rejection of transparency, and expressing their concerns can sometimes lead to the uncovering of new information. A willingness to take in new information and reconsider their original judgment must be a feature of their practices. Referees and umpires in sports seem to do less of this!
- Are Whistleblowers Really Protected from Retaliation and Vengeance?
No one in their right mind would ever dare to fire, punish, shun, or disparage a whistleblower. Unfortunately, there are people who do not entirely fit in that category “in their right mind.”
For the time being, the phrase “virtue is its own reward” appears to have been invented as the consolation prize for whistleblowers.
Whistleblower protection is still very much a work in progress. But progress has registered in the existence of laws and regulations that move in the right direction. Most important will be the spread of public recognition of the crucial role of whistleblowers in a nation that presents such a compelling need for their services.
- Why Do Whistleblowers Matter So Much?
No one is better positioned to restore steady meaning to the currently besieged and embattled idea of truth and accuracy.
The Singing of the Whistleblower Anthem
We return to the Annual Whistleblowers Appreciation Awards Banquet, where a standing ovation is under way for the 2020 Winner, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, honored for his brave testimony at the Impeachment Hearings in the House of Representatives on October 29, 2019.
As the audience settles back into their seats, I summon a group of children to the stage, where they surround Lt. Col. Vindman and pay tribute to him by singing the Whistleblower Anthem, an unusual combination of humor and solemnity, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
Speaking for posterity, we thank you for your work.
You have brought the vain to justice and defeated every jerk.
You have stood up to the wicked, which has driven them berserk.
Your truth is marching on.
Your dad brought you from Poland when you were a tiny child.
The way that you’ve been treated* can nearly drive us wild.
Yet your service to our nation is at once both fierce and mild.
Your truth is marching on.
“Properly pronounced: “tweeted”
While the children sing, the most powerful people in the room dissolve in envy, dreaming of a future banquet where the children will sing this song to them.
Army Officer Who Clashed With Trump Vows to Speak Out on Security Issues
History Colorado links:
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Photo credit: Whistle photo courtesy of, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistle#/media/File:Pea_Whistle.jpg
Photo credit: Alexander Vindman photo courtesy of,https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jennifer_Williams_and_Alexander_Vindman_-_Dec_19_19.jpg