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Famous Whistleblowers Throughout History

Updated on June 16, 2014

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What is a Whistleblower?

Whistleblowers are those who go beyond the call of duty, putting their jobs, their lives, and the safety of their loved ones at risk in order to expose devious behavior within an organization. The first recorded whistleblower in history dates back to 1777, when Samual Shaw, a member of the U.S. military, exposed questionable tactics the military was using against the British troops.

After Shaw revealed these issues, the United States' Continental Congress enacted the Whistleblower protection act in 1778. In 1863 the government enacted the False Claims Act as a measure to protect whistleblowers. This act was revised in 1986. Each country has their own laws surrounding whistleblowing and protection of those who reveal the information.

Despite laws in place to protect whistleblowers, many still view them as traitors, and the mixed reception they receive has caused a number of whistleblowers to go into hiding, seek refuge in a foreign country, or even commit suicide because of the information they uncovered.

The term "whistleblower" was coined by Ralph Nader in the 1970s, inspired by a referee's whistle, which designates foul play when blown.

Whistleblower Smedley Butler

Smedley Butler - Marine - Uncovered a Coup de'Tat Against FDR


Retired U.S. Marines Corps Major General, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, who alleged to the McCormack-Dickstein Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives that business leaders had plotted a fascist coup d'├ętat against the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration in what became known as the Business Plot. In his book War Is a Racket, Butler listed well-known US military operations that he alleged were not about protecting democracy as was told to the public but in furthering the business interests of U.S. banks and corporations. He compared these activities with Al Capone-style mob hits on behalf of American corporations and their respective business interests.[

Whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg - Military Analyst - Leaked the Pentagon Papers

Former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg was responsible for the famous leaking of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s. These documents, which detailed the gruesome details about a top secret government study pertaining to the Vietnam War, revealed that the United States had secretly enlarged the scale of the Vietnam War.

Ellsberg was not thanked for his revelations, but instead was charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property. Ellsberg's leak led to the famous Supreme Court case New York Times v. United States.

The Pentagon Paper Whistleblowers Encourages More People to Speak Out

Big Tobacco Whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand

Whistleblower Poll

Do you consider whistleblowers to be heroes or traitors?

See results

Jeffrey Wigand - Brown & Williamson Employee - Tobacco Industry Whistleblower

Born in December of 1942, Jeffrey Wigand worked as the vice president at a major tobacco company - Brown & Williamson. In 1996 he risked his high-stature career to expose secrets inside the tobacco industry.

In February of that year, Wigand was featured on CBS's news show, 60 Minutes. During the interview, Wigand revealed that the company intentionally manipulated data available to the public regarding nicotine levels in cigarettes and their potential for addiction.

He was immediately fired from Brown and Williamson after the airing of the 60 Minutes episode and afterwards was subject to constant harassment and death threats.

In 1999 Russell Crowe played the role of Wigan in the movie The Insider. Today, Wigand travels the country talking to youth about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

Karen Silkwood - Kerr McGee - Nuclear Power Whistleblower

No community of whistleblowers is larger than the nuclear power plant community. Over the past four to five decades, dozens of workers have come foreward from all over the globe to reveal dangers associated with nuclear power plants. The first prominent nuclear power plant whistleblower was Karen Silkwood - an employee at the Kerr-McGee power plant in Oklahoma.

A union activist, Silkwood testified in 1974 about her concerns surrounding the safety of the plant, the health of the workers, and the dangers facing the community the plant was located in. In 1983, a film title Silkwood was made to highlight Silkwood's efforts. Because of the information Silkwood uncovered, Kerr-McGee was forced to pay out more than $1 million to employees and community residents who suffered adverse affects as a result of the plant.

Additional nuclear power plant whistleblowers include Gregory C. Minor,Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale G. Bridenbaugh.

Cathy Harris - U.S. Customs Service Employee - Exposed Rampant Racism Against Black Travelers

Cathy Harris worked for United States Customs when she began to witness rampant racial profiling at Hartsfield International Airport. The airport, located in Atlanta, Georgia, was forcing black passengers to go through unneccessary frisking and body cavity searches, were detained for hours while trying to travel, and were even force fed laxatives in order to have their feces examined for drugs and other contraband.

This unnecessary humiliation of the black community was too much for Harris to bear. In 1998, Cathy Harris exposed the racial profiling practices of Customs and Border Protection to Congress and to the public. After that, legislation was introduced and international travelers gained increased legal protections and stronger avenues of recourse if they are abused or mistreated by U.S. Customs officials.

After Harris published her book A Whistleblower's Victorious Journey to Justice, it was uncovered that Harris herself was the subject of racial profiling and discrimination from her fellow co-workers, as well as supervisors.

Whistleblower Reveals Planned Police State

Linda Tripp Exposed the Monica Lewinsky Scandel During Clinton's Administration

Linda Tripp - White House Staff Member - Uncovered the Clinton, Lewinsky Scandal

Linda Tripp was born in 1949 and grew up in Jersey City, NJ before taking a job at the Pentagon as an Army Intelligence secretary in 1987.

Tripp made headlines in 1998 when she uncovered the Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton scandal. A White House staff member, Tripp told the Office of Independent Counsel that Lewinsky was guilty of perjury and the President Bill Clinton was guilty of misconduct.

The Clinton administration lashed back at Tripp for releasing the information, but Tripp wound up winning the battle after a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and the U.S. Justice Department awarded her $595,000 for releasing her disclosures to the media.

Frederic Whitehurst - Chemist at the FBI - First Modern Day FBI Whistleblower

A chemist at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation who was the FBI Laboratory's foremost expert on explosives residue in the 1990s, and became the first modern-day FBI whistleblower. He reported a lack of scientific standards and serious flaws in the FBI Lab, including in the first World Trade Center bombing cases and the Oklahoma City bombing case. Whitehurst's whistleblower disclosures triggered an overhaul of the FBI's crime lab following a report by the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General in 1997. Dr. Whitehust filed a federal lawsuit claiming whistleblower retaliation, and he reached a settlement with the FBI worth more than $1.16 million.[65] Whitehurst now directs the FBI Oversight Project of the National Whistleblower Center.

Bradley Manning was Charged with Aiding the Enemy in 2010

Bradley Manning - NSA Employee - Leaker of Afghan War Logs

Maybe one of the most talked about whistleblowers of our time, Bradley Manning is a former member of the United States Army currently in jail for violating the Espionage Act. A recluse his whole life, Manning joined the army in his early 20s in an attempt to help him establish his own identity.

Highly intelligent, Manning acquired a love for computer hacking during his time in the military. While serving as an intelligence agent for the army, Manning came across numerous documents that left him feeling uneasy. It didn't take long for Manning to find an outlet to vent the secrets he had buried inside him.

In 2010, Adrain Lamo, one of Manning's hacker friends, turned over thousands of documents uncovered by Manning. These documents included the Afghan War logs, the Iraq War logs, and 250,000 diplomatic cables. He was immediately flown back to the U.S. from his tour overseas to be tried for a number of charges, including the offense of aiding the enemy.

Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail, a dishonorable discharge from the military, and reduction of rank. Activists all over the globe fought throughout Manning's trial for his freedom, and many are still fighting, trying to find some justice for Bradley Manning.

Edward Snowden - NSA Employee - Security Breech Whistleblower

One of the most prolific whistleblowers of our generation, Edward Snowden used to work for the National Security Agency as a contractor. During 2013, he gained world-wide recognition when he leaked thousands of classified documents to the American media.

The documents Snowden leaked uncovered massive surveilance on behalf of the NSA on private citizens. He revealed huge privacy breaches and the information leaked by Snowden is currently the most significant leak in U.S. history.

After leaking the information to outlets like The Guardian, Snowden began country hopping, fully aware that if he was caught on U.S. soil that he would be instantly arrested and charged with a number of offenses.

The U.S. government has since discussed charging Snowden with the offense of violating the espionage act, and has urged countries that are protecting him to turn him over to th United States government where he can be tried properly.

Currently in Russia, Snowden has applied for asylum in over 20 different countries and has continued to talk to the press and government officials in foreign nations about his findings during his time at the NSA.


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    • pramodgokhale profile image


      6 years ago from Pune( India)

      Whistle blower is person who wakes society and fight against government and institutions if they commit crimes or behave unfair.

      In India our society is not favoring whistle blowers because part of the society , i mean media, so-called social workers are being bought by politicians.

      In 2012 in Delhi Anna Hazare had blown whistle so India's great fraud of G-2 allotment exposed, government could not save skin and ministers had to resign.He dared and that became movement against corruption.

      He didn't care threat to life and continued his fast to wake people.

      This can be happened only in democratic nations and free societies.

      India despite flaws continued her march towards functioning democracy and democracy has roots in our country.

      RIT right to information act was passed in parliament , so citizen can ask bureaucrats to inform government schemes and implementation,

      This is victory of whistle blower and their hard work and efforts.

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 

      6 years ago from California

      Great hub! I agree with the previous commentators - I wouldn't necessarily include Linda Tripp in that list since I do consider whistleblowers to be heroes not traitors, and her exposure of Clinton's sex life was hardly heroic. Exposing his affairs had no relevance to Clinton's ability to be a good President, so Tripp was more of a "gossip girl" type than a hero type, in my opinion.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 

      6 years ago from California, United States of America

      That is very interesting, I didn't know how far back in history whistle blower protection went and that whistle blowing was already going on in the Revolutionary War. Good list of whistle blowers. I agree with what has been said about Linda Tripp, that what she "revealed" was not very significant and pretty much just pure gossip and seems likely the result of political games rather than actually being for the public good. However, there is no doubt people like Smedley, Ellsberg and the others truly might have saved lives, improved lives and revealed to the public what they truly should know.

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Odenthal 

      6 years ago from Bridgewater

      Thanks Audrey. Good point, I wonder what would happen if I rearranged the dates for some of these people!

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Odenthal 

      6 years ago from Bridgewater

      Aren't there always two sides to the coin? Good point. Thanks for reading

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Odenthal 

      6 years ago from Bridgewater

      Great insight! Yes, Linda Tripp is definitely the one on my list who seemed to be out for fame rather than the good of the people, but let us not allow one bad apple to spoil the bunch!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      6 years ago from California

      I too enjoyed this hub--and looking at your list, it is interesting how time changes our perspective --so many people we might consider heroes now may have been vilified then--

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 

      6 years ago from UAE

      They are 2 sides of a coin. Good and lucid hub

    • wrenchBiscuit profile image

      Ronnie wrenchBiscuit 

      6 years ago

      Great article Kathleen!

      • Bradley Manning

      • Cathy Harris

      • Edward Snowden

      • Daniel Ellsberg

      • Jeffrey Wigand

      Yes, these people are certainly heroes.Especially Snowden and Manning.Unfortunately,they let their ideology and moral judgement lead them to a cross. As they hang upon that cross many will curse them and many others will praise and admire them,but nevertheless,even those who shout,"Lord,Lord!" will timidly gaze upon their heroes as the brutal crucifixion is carried out.I wish they would have talked to me first.I would have told them that a society of sheep,with a don't worry be happy let's go home and watch American Idol instead mentality, is simply not worth the sacrifice.

      History has proven this over and over again.Even today,after the world has long since recognized that John Brown was justified in his actions at Harpers Ferry,he is not officially honored for his sacrifice.Yet, George Washington,Thomas Jefferson,and Christopher Columbus,are all honored with a national holiday, U.S. currency,or both. All three of these miscreants were slave owners,rapists,and murderers, and Jefferson was also a pedophile.Go figure! At any rate,if Snowden and Manning had been students of history, they would have understood the folly of martyrdom.The American public is not worthy of these two brave souls.

      As far as Linda Tripp is concerned, she gave the American public just what they wanted, and what they deserve: more useless tabloid gossip.I expect she might also get nominated for a national holiday.

    • Kathleen Odenthal profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Odenthal 

      6 years ago from Bridgewater

      Great point, I don't know why I left the poll like that, because even I feel differently about the people I mentioned and would answer differently depending on the person. I think I will go and change it to something more "answerable"!

    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 

      6 years ago from Escondido, CA

      I really enjoyed the historical perspective of this awesome article. I had not realized how far back government protection and recognition occurred. Very interesting adding to this articles overall view.


    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I concur: It is not possible to vote in your poll, because the determination of whether or not one is a traitor or whistle-blower is a function of a complex set of determinable variables.

      And I also concur that it is difficult to imagine Edward Snowden as the heroic whistle-blower first because of his seeking asylum in countries with long histories of the very abuses he chides the US for: Venezuela, Cuba, China, Russia and second because much of what he and his cohort (which includes angry ex-patriot Glenn Greenwald and determined anti-American agitator Julian Assange) have disclosed (and I use the term "disclosed" warily since much of what they claim has been proven not to be true) are aimed squarely hampering the spying and intelligence efforts of the United States while bolstering those of enemies of the US.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Very interesting hub. I didn't vote in your pole, because I believe the status of a whistleblower varies from case to case. I have more respect for someone who goes on the record and faces the fallout from their actions than someone who flees to a questionable government to seek protection from his consequences. SHARING


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