Last week, Ralph Nader hosted hundreds of civic activists for his Breaking Through Powerconference. These activists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the consumer advocate’s book,Unsafe at Any Speed, by listening to panelists describe how they improve civic mobilization and democratic integrity.
The Governmental Accountability Project (GAP) emphasizes whistleblowing as a way to spur action and break through power. Fifty years ago, Ralph Nader coined the term “whistleblower” when he called for civic-minded engineers and technicians to report corruption. And they responded! With the help of those early corporate whistleblowers, consumer-friendly legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act were created and corruption was exposed. Public life improved. If private sector whistleblowers could make so much change, could the same be done in the public sector?
They briefly outlined their stories throughout the panel: Drake blew the whistle on the National Security Agency’s ineffective Trailblazerprogram that wasted millions of American taxpayers’ dollars; Radack exposed a Federal Bureau of Investigation’s unethical interrogation of “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh; Kiriakou shed light on the Central Intelligence Agency’s torture program. All three served their country, all three exposed corruption, and all three suffered reprisal. Their reprisal came at the cost of baseless FBI raids, criminal investigations, an Espionage Act prosecution, and even actual prison time.
The cost of whistleblowing can be high, especially for the unconnected. Breaking through power without power is difficult. While these whistleblowers were punished, they noted “hypocrisy” in the handling of high-ranking officials’ information disclosures, and Drake claimed that “[those with power] get another set of rules.” Kiriakou concurred, citing an instance where Director Petraeus “got a pass” forallegedly revealing sensitive information to the New York Times.