In the United States, around 3 million people work with classified information as part of their job. That includes people who work in the military, for government agencies like the CIA, or for private companies hired by those agencies. Let’s say you are one of those people. And you learn something that bothers you. Because this is your job, you know that the laws around classified information are serious. But let’s say the thing you learn is really bad. Maybe a government program is wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. Or a federal agency is spying on millions of ordinary Americans. Or, the head of your government is making shadowy deals with foreign leaders for personal gain. You have a decision to make. A sort of “choose your own adventure.” But behind each door is a different set of risks. If you decide to expose what you’ve learned, that’s called whistleblowing. And in the US, it’s often regarded as a brave, patriotic thing to do. There are laws to protect it. But the reality, for the 3 million people who work with classified information, is much more complicated. What would you do? This is Daniel Ellsberg, an American military analyst in the 1960s. Ellsberg learned that the US government had lied to the public about why the US was at war in Vietnam, and about how deadly the war was. In 1971, he gave 7,000 classified documents that exposed those lies to the New York Times, and then to 20 other newspapers. Ellsberg took door #1: leaking your evidence of government wrongdoing, directly to the media. His leak became known as the “Pentagon Papers.” Three years later, the US pulled out of the war. But leaking classified information to the media is illegal. And in Ellsberg’s case, the government made him a target. “We’ve got to keep our eye on the main ball, the main ball is Ellsberg. We got to get this son of a bitch.” The federal government charged Ellsberg under the Espionage Act, a law from 1917, originally written to go after spies working with foreign governments. But Ellsberg got lucky. It turned out that the government had broken the law by spying on him, and a judge threw out the charges. He was free to go. But other leakers haven’t been so lucky. Chelsea Manning, an American soldier, leaked classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010, including evidence that the US had committed war crimes in Iraq. She went to prison for 7 years. In 2013, the cybersecurity expert Edward Snowden leaked evidence of a massive government surveillance program to international newspapers. He fled the United States to avoid being prosecuted for espionage. Leaking classified information to the media is one common kind of whistleblowing. But it’s also illegal, so it’s treacherous for those that risk it. Fortunately, in the US there’s another option: to go through official, internal channels for coming forward with a complaint. This is door #2: legal whistleblowing. In 1998, the US created a process for people who work with classified information to file complaints: First to an inspector general, and then to
the director of national intelligence, and then on to Congress. This is someone who worked in national security at the time. His name is Thomas Drake. Shortly after September 11th, Drake learned that the National Security Agency was part of an unprecedented program inside the federal government, called “Stellar Wind.” The program collected emails, phone conversations, financial transactions, and the web activity of millions of American citizens, without a warrant. What are we doing violating the Constitution? I knew that if I remained silent that I would be complicit in a crime. Drake considered taking what he knew to the press, but knew it would put him at risk. I knew that that was fraught with enormous peril. I was extremely familiar what happened to Daniel Ellsberg. Luckily, he had a legal route he could follow. He brought his concerns to his supervisor,
to his own agency’s inspector general’s office, and eventually to Congress. But his agency told him that no matter what the Constitution said, the White House said the program was legal, and that that was good enough for them. “I could feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck, because I was thrown back to the 70s, and Nixon.” Drake’s next problem was that the 1998 law he had been following didn’t do anything to protect him against retaliation. Drake’s identity became public within his agency, and he was gradually pushed out of his job. I was increasingly isolated. They finally removed me from all positions, all responsibilities, all programs. There’s no recourse, and no penalty if the
agency decides to retaliate against you. Finally, after Drake’s complaints went nowhere, he chose a different path. He went to the media. And because he remembered what happened to Ellsberg,  he chose to share unclassified information, which meant it was legal. But then, in 2010, the Obama administration accused him of violating the Espionage Act, the same as Ellsberg, who had leaked classified information. “Thomas Drake is charged with violating espionage laws.” “Prosecutors claimed that Drake had betrayed his country.” Drake’s case was only the fourth time in history that the Espionage Act had been used to prosecute a whistleblower. But since the Obama administration, it’s become a lot more common. Eventually the case collapsed because Drake did nothing illegal. But his career in the government was over. Today, he works at an Apple Store. The price is enormous. I have no retirement. That’s gone. You lose your entire social network, in terms of work. There’s people who lost their jobs because of their association with me. Those are burdens that I will carry with me the rest of my life. In August 2019, an officer in the CIA filed
a whistleblower complaint saying that President Trump was trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate one of his political rivals. Just like Drake, the officer followed the process laid out in the law. He took the complaint to the inspector general. The inspector general took it to the director of national intelligence. Then it stopped. The director of national intelligence never brought it to Congress. So the inspector general went over his head. “Deeply disturbing, what we read this morning.” “I’m announcing the House of Representatives moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.” Testimony from witnesses in the impeachment investigation has backed up almost everything laid out in the whistleblower complaint. And whistleblower protections were updated in 2012 with more explicit language, saying the government can’t retaliate against a whistleblower the way they did against Thomas Drake. So the whistleblower should be protected. But where the laws still fall short is whether it’s a crime to reveal a whistleblower’s identity to the public. That’s what the president and his allies are hoping to do next. “There’s no law that prevents me from mentioning the name of who’s been said to be the whistleblower.” “The whistleblower… …should be revealed.” The parts of the government that deal in secrecy are also the least accountable to the public. And whistleblowers in those agencies are some of the only ways wrongdoing there might ever come to light. But the system fails them. And every retaliation sends a clear message. If both leaking, and legal whistleblowing, leave government whistleblowers vulnerable, this system will push more and more people who know something’s wrong, into door number three: doing nothing at all.