For centuries, very brave people have been exposing war crimes, corporate corruption, worker dangers, and medical racism in the USA. Their determination to reveal the truth has cost them harassment, job loss, jail — their very lives.
In early days, naval officers Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven unmasked the torture of British POWs by the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. Retaliation against these two led to the first whistleblower protection laws on July 30, 1778, before the United States even had a constitution. In 1872 when Julius Chambers checked himself into Bloomingdale Asylum, he uncovered mistreatment of patients with mental illness, then published his observations.
Two of the best-known recent leakers are Chelsea Manning, who disclosed thousands of pages of documents about U.S. military transgressions in Afghanistan, and Julian Assange, whose Wikileaks organization broadcast them on the internet. And to the world. Both spent years in prison. Manning suffered intense anti-queer discrimination, and Assange is now faced with extradition to the U.S. where he could be tried for treason. His case marks a drastic escalation in reprisals for those who bring to light imperialist crimes and for journalists who publish leaked information.
Military crimes abound. There have been countless armed-forces whistleblowers over the years. Daniel Ellsberg is well-known for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and exposing the real story behind the Vietnam War. Less known is David C. MacMichael who, in 1984, blew the lid off U.S. use of the CIA to drive regime change in Nicaragua. As a former CIA intelligence analyst, he knew there was no evidence to back President Reagan’s excuses for U.S. covert intervention.
Joseph M. Darby, in 2004, leaked the shocking photos of the U.S. military and contractors torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, an American-run prison outside Baghdad. As a result, he and his family were shunned by neighbors in Maryland, their property was vandalized, and they now reside in protective military custody at an undisclosed location.
Later, in 2013, Edward Snowden revealed thousands of classified NSA (National Security Agency) and CIA documents to journalists at The Guardian, the Washington Post, and others, blowing the whistle on vast government and military spying on the public and other nations. Snowden fled the U.S. and has been variously called a traitor, a hero, a dissident, a coward, and a patriot. According to Wikipedia.org he was granted permanent residence in Russia in 2020.
They are the conscience of a nation. In the medical world, Public Health Service workers William Jenkins and Peter Buxtun researched and protested against the 40-year-long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on nearly 400 Black sharecroppers, who were uninformed of the nature of the study. Some of them were untreated and left to suffer. Some died. Buxtun leaked the information to Associated Press journalist Jean Heller in 1972. The “experiment” ended immediately after it was covered in The New York Times. Jenkins devoted his life to fighting racism in the U.S. healthcare system.
Frank Serpico is well known for baring New York Police Department corruption and widespread police bribes in 1971. Many other public workers have exposed government fraud, cost overruns, etc., and lost their jobs with no recourse to fight retaliation. Federal employees had no whistleblower protection until 1989.
For every one who makes the news there are thousands that the public has never heard of. A movie about Karen Silkwood in 1983 was widely seen. Silkwood lost her life in 1974 after exposing safety problems at nuclear power plants. But many others also protested nukes. Gregory Minor, Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale G. Bridenbaugh quit their engineering jobs in public press conferences protesting lack of safety for nuclear workers.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading pediatrician, collected and publicized scientific proof of the Flint, Michigan water pollution crisis and its impact on children. Her book What the Eyes Don’t See details the brutal backlash she faced battling for environmental justice.
Innumerable others have risked their jobs and safety to uncover and fight corporate and medical wrongdoing as well as government fraud and dangerous working conditions.
Working people owe a huge debt to leakers and whistleblowers for exposing truths at great risk to themselves. The U.S. war machine, corporate fraud and job abuse now face growing opposition. Movements must celebrate and defend whistleblowers, and fight together against increasingly harsh reprisals.