There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about President Donald Trump, Ukraine, and an unidentified whistleblower. A whistleblower is someone who “blows the whistle” or tells on someone for doing something wrong. An anonymous male CIA official reportedly has some information about a phone call between President Trump and the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Reports suggest the whistleblower believes Trump illegally put pressure on the other leader to provide information by threatening the U.S. would withhold favors if the demands were not met. This claim by the secret source has led to the current impeachment process.
History of Whistleblowing
Whistleblowing has a long tradition, and the informant is usually kept anonymous for their protection. The first appearance of this went all the way back to the year 695, when King Wihtred of Kent (England) said, “if a freeman works during [the Sabbath], he shall forfeit his [profits], and the man who informs against him shall have half the fine, and [the profits] of the labor.” This was the start of laws that allow a private individual to report lawbreakers and claim a reward for doing so.
In America, none other than Benjamin Franklin was the first to use this process. In 1773, he claimed that the governor of Massachusetts, who had been royally appointed, had intentionally misled the British Parliament to promote a military buildup in the Colonies. As proof, Franklin exposed confidential letters showing the appointment.
Daniel Ellsberg was a former U.S. military analyst and government contractor. He disclosed a classified government study about the Vietnam War that proved several officials had directly lied to Congress and the public about their intentions and actions in Vietnam. These documents became known as the Pentagon Papers. The release of this classified information led to protests and contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Mark Felt was an FBI secret informant. He provided information on the Watergate scandal during the administration of Richard Nixon, which effectively ended that president’s time in office.
Jeffrey Wigand was a former tobacco company executive. In 1996, he claimed on the show 60 Minutes that cigarette companies were fully aware they were packing their products with addictive levels of nicotine.
Bradley/Chelsea Manning is a transgender soldier who was court-martialed in 2013 for documents provided to online outlet WikiLeaks. The U.S. Army intelligence analyst reportedly leaked 91,731 military reports about the war in Afghanistan, and 251,287 diplomatic cables from the State Department. Among the material was a classified airstrike video that showed U.S. gunfire killing 11 civilians in Baghdad, including two journalists. After being jailed for the leaks and then set free by President Obama, Manning was later jailed again for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury.
Edward Snowden is a former federal contractor. He disclosed information regarding the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance of U.S. citizens through a program that collects phone records, emails, and internet histories of people around the world.
Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks, the website that collects and posts secretive information provided by whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning. In 2012, he claimed political asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in England and remained there until recently, when he was arrested. The website has published thousands of classified government documents online. He may soon be sent to the U.S. to face trial over his encouragement of other leakers to provide secret information.
Whistleblowers can face serious legal trouble for releasing private information, so they usually come forward only when they have something important to reveal to the public.