Government whistleblowing isn't easy. But it should be.
Let's lower the barriers for sounding the alarm on the powerful in America
The swamps of Washington bristle with predators, President Trump would have you know. Lurking around every corner is a traitor or spy, ready to pounce on any opportunity to betray the administration with lies to a willfully credulous press. Would-be whistleblowers abound. So eager are they to rat on their president, Trump says, they'll do so with information acquired third-hand or fabricated entirely.
But this is not how whistleblowing works — especially not whistleblowing of the sort at hand in the Ukraine scandal, where a report was made through official channels in the whistleblower's own name. (Neither the public nor the president know the whistleblower's identity, but the complaint was not anonymous and the identity may be revealed.) The reality is whistleblowing is socially difficult, even unnatural. It requires ousting yourself from an in-crowd and locking the door behind you. It goes against our every instinct to seek social belonging, particularly among the powerful.
British author and theologian C.S. Lewis called this the desire to be in the "Inner Ring," deeming it "one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action." The Inner Ring is not, Lewis says, an inherent evil. It's inevitable, as in any organization informal hierarchies likely will develop and personal friendships should, too. "But the desire which draws us into Inner Rings is another matter," he continues. "A thing may be morally neutral and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous."
This longing, which we all feel at some time, can be very strong indeed. It can override our better judgment, our usual moral qualms. You know this subtle tug, which Lewis vividly describes. No one appears before you with a straightforward invitation to participate in evil. No one says, outright and in advance, "You can only be our friend if you join in our corruption." No one asks, "Do you want to help the president of the United States attempt to use funds allotted by Congress for military aid to coerce another country's leader into acting as his opposition researcher for personal political gain in the next election?"
It's much more subtle and organic than all that. "Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still — just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig — the hint will come," Lewis warns. "It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which 'we' — and at the word 'we' you try not to blush for mere pleasure — something 'we always do.'"
To want to be a part of that "we" is thoroughly normal and understandable. It is not easy to turn down the invitation. It is more difficult still to excise yourself from the "we" once you have been grafted in.
And the act of the whistleblower includes that excision. Even if every allegation is fully vindicated, known whistleblowing will almost always have this social cost. To those implicated in the accusation and their friends, the whistleblower will be renamed "snitch" — or "traitor" or "spy." A certain suspicion will linger. It's no longer safe to allow the whistleblower into the in-group. He is "thrust back again into the cold outer world," as Lewis puts it, having been "tried for the Inner Ring and rejected." Whether such social consequences are consciously recognized or not, they function as a high barrier to revealing wrongdoing.
It is true, of course, that the barrier to whistleblowing can be too low. Institutions and social contexts can develop in which whistleblowing is encouraged to a point of gross dysfunction. (Eventually, the pejorative "snitching" does become the more accurate term.) Among the most painful examples of this in recent history is China's Cultural Revolution, where young people were pushed to aggressively police their communities, schools, and even families for absolute loyalty to the Maoist state. "I warned her: 'If you go against our dear Chairman Mao, I will smash your dog head,'" an elderly Chinese man recounted to The Guardian of his Cultural Revolution-era denunciation of his own mother. She was executed because of his report.
But that vicious atmosphere of relentless surveillance and mutual distrust is not what we face here, whatever Trump may claim. In our case, for our federal government, the hazard is on the other end of the spectrum: We risk having too few whistleblowers, not too many.
Consider Tuesday's report that the president in March talked to his staff "about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators" or having U.S. troops "shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down." If there is even a note of truth in this story, we should have heard a full orchestra of whistles months ago. How much of that long silence is due to people not wanting to suffer the consequences of whistleblowing (as opposed to not wanting to blow the whistle because they like these ideas) is impossible to say, but that they eventually got around to revealing Trump's comments — anonymously, and to the media instead of through official channels — suggests it was a significant factor.
The social difficulty that comes with open whistleblowing is exactly why we ought to make it institutionally easy. At present, if identified, whistleblowers often lose their jobs, sustain damage to their reputations, and may even face prosecution. "So far as I'm aware, from [Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel] Ellsberg to the present day, there hasn't been a single case in which a genuine whistleblower who exposed major problems in the intelligence community has experienced anything other than retaliation," former CIA employee and whistleblower Patrick Eddington told Politico for a history of how whistleblowing is handled in Washington. The only person who went to jail in connection to the Senate Intelligence Committee's 2014 CIA torture report, for example, was not a torturer but a whistleblower who tried to bring attention to the torture back in 2007.
Yes, investigatory safeguards are necessary to weed out false or mistaken accusations. But in the halls of power it should be as painless as possible to sound the alarm on whatever "we" are doing that the "ignorant, romantic public" wouldn't approve.
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