Q&A: Kaeten Mistry on Whistleblowing Nation

In Whistleblowing Nation: The History of National Security Disclosures and the Cult of State Secrecy, editors Kaeten Mistry and Hannah Gurman detail the long American tradition of persecuting those who expose state misdeeds. The twenty-first century witnessed a new age of whistleblowing. Disclosures by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and others have stoked heated public debates about the ethics of exposing institutional secrets. Bringing together contributors from a range of disciplines to consider political, legal, and cultural dimensions, Whistleblowing Nation is a pathbreaking history of national security disclosures and state secrecy from World War I to the present. In this Q&A Kaeten answers questions about the origins and implications of the book.

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Q: This is such an important and timely collection—congratulations on the book’s publication! I want to start with a few very introductory questions: First, what is “whistleblowing,” and is the technical meaning of the term widely understood?

Kaeten Mistry: “Whistleblowing” is a term that is widely used nowadays and will be familiar to everyone. Yet while it may not seem to require an introduction, it is fiendishly difficult to define. And that is because one person’s truth-telling whistleblower is another person’s traitorous criminal, and various things in between. There is no settled meaning in politics, academia, journalism, the law, or civic society. On a very basic level it is about drawing attention to wrongdoing or abuse for the greater good. However, this leads to several questions: What constitutes wrongdoing? Who should the indiscretions be reported to? Is the disclosure in the public interest or for an organization? Is the whistleblower entitled to protection? The responses set the terms of the debate in critical ways.

For instance, consider the differing approaches of the U.S. government to a) disclosures of securities law abuses―those related to the nation’s stocks and options exchanges; and b) disclosures of national security wrongdoing. The former is actively encouraged and offers rewards; the latter is not encouraged and furthermore, prosecuted. This means that, on the one hand, someone blowing the whistle on insider trading can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars as reward; on the other hand, someone blowing the whistle on national security wrongdoing faces years in prison. 

Q: Could you tell us a bit more about whistleblowing in a national security context, specifically? What is unique about it, and what makes it distinct from other forms of whistleblowing?

KM: In principle, national security whistleblowing is the same as corporate or state whistleblowing in that it calls attention to wrongdoing. But the fact that it involves state “secrets”―classified but also unclassified information―means it has been considered in a different light. It’s been, if you will, exceptionalized. Disclosures of national security information in the public interest dramatically draw back the cloak of secrecy, albeit momentarily, but they trigger an indiscriminate, punitive response by the state. A common feature of the debate is that the individual is painted as a hero or a traitor, which in turn moves the discussion away from the disclosure itself and toward personality.

The book examines the long and curiously uncharted history of national security whistleblowing. There is a paradox around a phenomenon that is both widely known and systematically denied. If we think about famous instances, whether historic ones like Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of the Pentagon Papers―a secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam―in the 1970s or recent ones involving Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, the individuals are commonly referred to as whistleblowers in the public sphere, yet the U.S. government consciously refuses to use that term. The state labels them cases of “unauthorized disclosures.” There are important political, legal, and cultural reasons for doing so, namely to ensure individuals can be prosecuted and to deter others. One of our main objectives was to explore what made national security whistleblowing so different by tracing the characteristics of the phenomenon. We found a consistent pattern that went back almost a century.

Q: How did you become interested in this topic? I know both of your research has historically focused on events and systems that emerged from the Cold War. Could you describe how your interest in whistleblowing grew out of that work? 

KM: Our earlier work had examined dissent and resistance with respect to U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War. We had considered broader challenges to the national security status quo, but it was while Kaeten started some research on the 1970s that he and Hannah began to specifically discuss national security whistleblowing. However, the topic posed several challenges. How do you write on something without a fixed definition or meaning? There is no established literature, and you’re unlikely to find references in archives or libraries. These conversations led us to launch a project to write an interdisciplinary history of whistleblowing. We were lucky to receive funding from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council that allowed us to form a crack team of scholars with a variety of backgrounds and specializations. It was our belief that the story could only be told by recognizing the multiple political, cultural, legal, and social dimensions to national security disclosures. In many ways, the result is more of a coauthored book than a collection.

Q: Whistleblowers in American national security organizations—most notably Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning—have been in the news relatively consistently in the past decade. But could you historicize whistleblowing beyond this recent history? 

KM: Right, these cases were unfolding as we started the research, and we were keen to understand the phenomenon from a deeper historical perspective. It was important to explore the characteristics of whistleblowing and not just look for the term or produce a series of biographies. There is a long, revealing genealogy, and as we dug deeper, a familiar pattern emerged. The process of national security whistleblowing can be broken down as such: First, there is a revelation of privileged information by a state insider, often to press, that invokes the public interest. The identity of the individual authenticates the information that is exposed. The U.S. government condemns it as an “unauthorized disclosure,” arguing that it undermines security and seeks to prosecute the individual. Meanwhile, in the public debate, the whistleblower is celebrated as a patriotic hero or condemned as a traitorous villain. Eventually, questions about the legitimacy of the disclosure and the character of the whistleblower overtake considerations of the contents of the revelation. This pattern has played out consistently from the early twentieth century to the present day.

Q: A follow-up question: Do you have a hypothesis about why national security whistleblowing has been so prevalent in the twenty-first-century United States?

KM: We’re living in a new age of national security whistleblowing. The only other moment when it was so prevalent was the 1970s. It is no coincidence that both periods experienced widening public fissures around long-running U.S. military operations abroad―the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam―and controversies related to surveillance programs―warrantless wiretapping and the antiwar and civil rights movements―that affected U.S. citizens. These were/are divisive eras, and the number of whistleblowing cases reflects that. Those inside the national security establishment are not isolated from wider debates taking place in civil society. And althoughthe overwhelming majority do not speak out, some will be moved to do so. The odds grow amid fractured times. Another important consideration is that the modern national security state is gigantic: over 5 million individuals―working both formally for the state and as private contractors―have some level of security clearance today. The greater the number of people with access to secrets, the greater the chances of disclosure.

Q: A lot of us have heard about the case of Reality Winner, who was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 for releasing information about Russia’s 2016 election interference in the U.S. presidential election. What is the Espionage Act of 1917, and why is it so controversial? 

KM: The Espionage Act is a vast piece of legislation that was originally enacted to assist the United States during World War I, including provisions to deter espionage and invoke censorship. But it wouldn’t be restricted to wartime. In the following decades the espionage statutes evolved into a classification tool to police the disclosure of national security information. Therefore, presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s to Donald Trump today have turned to the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers. Throughout the twentieth century, the government had a mixed record in successfully convicting individuals who disclosed information, which led it to develop other measures and laws to complement the espionage statutes. The boom in prosecutions in the twenty-first century is without precedent. Under the Barack Obama and Trump administrations, more individuals have been targeted than under all their predecessors combined. Essentially, you have an early twentieth-century law being used to jail people in the twenty-firstcentury. Furthermore, it is now also being used to target journalists and the press, which has serious ramifications for First Amendment rights.

Q: Is there an archetypal whistleblower or an archetypal whistleblowing case for you?

KM: In short, there is no archetypical case. We often focus on iconic episodes―i.e., Ellsberg, Manning, Snowden―but whistleblowing is incredibly diverse. The motives change over time and are rooted in a variety of ideological and personal factors. They range from a desire to enhance state power, criticize specific policy decisions, or oppose wars to questioning the underlying principles of national security. Although whistleblowers follow a similar path in going from insider to dissenter, the transformation isn’t necessarily a political conversion. Some question the beliefs and apparatus of national security while others continue to adhere to the American mission and seek to improve policies and methods. Attempting to generalize whistleblowers as left wing or right wing, radical or moderate, selfish or idealistic fall apart under closer historical scrutiny. One of the key historical features is that motive and politics are irrelevant for the U.S. government; whistleblowers are pursued indiscriminately. 

In recent years the state has sought to create insider reporting channels for those in the intelligence community, in the military, and with access to classified information. They are termed whistleblowing protection measures, but they are not in the traditional sense. The channels narrowly define whistleblowing involving cases of “waste, fraud, and abuse” that must be reported to agency inspector generals. In some cases Congress is informed, but the public is not. 

Q: What would the world look like without national security whistleblowing?

KM: Critics of national security whistleblowing argue that not having it would enhance state security. Defenders argue not having it harms democracy. Both arguments are flawed. The notions of achieving total secrecy or total transparency are impractical, even dangerous. But the fates of whistleblowing and democracy are linked. Whistleblowing facilitates public discussion about state power and highlights discrepancies between what officials say and what they do. The discussion should be around the broader questions that are opened up, like the nature of the secrecy regime, the power of national security, and how to deal with dissent. It shouldn’t be about the personality of the whistleblower, or whether they are a hero or a traitor. 

From a historical perspective, a world without national security whistleblowing changes the modern history of the United States in dramatic ways. Richard Nixon was famously forced from office by investigations into the Watergate burglary. The group that broke into the Washington hotel complex had been created in response to the whistleblowing of Daniel Ellsberg; the “Plumbers” were intended to plug other “leaks” of national security information. And even more recently, the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump were based on the revelations by whistleblowers about the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

Q: Where do you see this project going in the future?

KM: The book is the first attempt at a history of national security whistleblowing. So it could encourage more work around specific cases or periods, as well as questions around secrecy, First Amendment rights, and the national security state. Whistleblowing is not unique to the United States, of course, so there are opportunities to explore how other countries and regions approach the phenomenon. Whistleblowing speaks to a number of tensions around secrecy and transparency, security and civil liberties, and the politics of truth and falsehood.


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