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Holding the Government Accountable

For Whistleblowers, Fraying Protection

This piece was co-written by Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, and former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson. It originally appeared April 24 on

Ten years ago this week, advocates, funders, journalists and citizens gathered in an effort to champion the rights of whistleblowers, people who come forward with information about alleged dishonest or illegal activities. It seemed like protection for whistleblowers was nearing a turning point: only the year before, Time magazine had heralded whistleblowers on their cover as “Person of the Year.” The public was becoming somewhat less wary of “snitches” as the whistleblowers from Enron, Worldcom, and the FBI were recognized as brave, selfless, and right, in their attempts to try to stop wrongdoing by their institutions.

We care deeply about the issue ourselves, as the head of an organization dedicated to supporting whistleblower protections, and as the diplomat who came forward about the use of misleading intelligence in the lead-up to war in Iraq, respectively. At this event, the first of what would become the annual “Ridenhour Prizes,” we hoped to encourage the public to better understand and embrace those patriotic dissenters who speak truth to power, at great peril, in order to make us safer and more secure. We hoped this public acclaim for truth-tellers would help policymakers realize the precious place whistleblowers, and particularly national security whistleblowers, have in our democratic society.

In short, we saw a brighter future for truth-tellers, and genuine progress on an issue central to American democracy. But sadly, ten years later, we fear that we may have, in fact, lost ground.

The Ridenhour Prizes, founded by Randy Fertel and former president of The Nation Institute Hamilton Fish, was named for one of the most courageous truth-tellers in recent American history: Ron Ridenhour, who exposed the infamous My Lai massacre in Vietnam and went on to become an award-winning investigative journalist.

Ridenhour, at the time an active duty helicopter gunner, heard rumors of a massacre from others who served in Vietnam. He gathered testimony and evidence, and upon his return to the U.S., reached out to Congress and the Pentagon, sparking an investigation that shocked America and led to the conviction of the officer responsible for the killings. This act took courage. By coming forward, Ridenhour revealed the nature of the war in Vietnam to the American public.

Over the past ten years, The Ridenhour Prizes have become a “must attend” event on the D.C. political and social circuit: a moving, standing-room only event in the National Press Club with prizes honoring journalists, documentary films, books and people for lifetime achievement. In a city not known for its honesty, the Ridenhours have been the rare event celebrating truth-telling, honoring figures such as National Security Agency analyst Thomas Drake and Countrywide whistleblower Eileen Foster. This year’s winners include immigration advocate and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, and climate scientist Dr. James Hansen.

Sadly, as these awards have thrived, prosecutions of so-called “leakers” have as well. Arguably, national security whistleblowers face greater personal risk now than at the height of the Bush administration. While private sector whistleblowers and many who work for the federal government have new, state-of-the-art protections if they blow the whistle, the new rights for national security and intelligence community whistleblowers aren’t expected to provide adequate protection from retaliation. Meanwhile, more people have been prosecuted by this administration under the Espionage Act than by all previous administrations combined for revealing information about our government.

A new documentary, War on Whistleblowers, details the lengths to which the government has gone to silence whistleblowers and the journalists who try to aid them. Investigative reporter Tim Shorrock reported earlier this month on the crackdown on four NSA employees, who were driven by their conscience to come forward in an effort to end millions of dollars in waste at the agency. And a report from the Constitution Project on torture reveals a disturbing penchant for secrecy.

In February, NPR argued that the Obama administration is slowly improving conditions for whistleblowers. That is true in some regards, but this argument is overly simplistic. The Obama administration has supported stronger protections for federal workers outside the national security arena, and created new rights for those inside it. But at the same time, the administration has pursued a gaping loophole to those protections in court.

The secrecy that Ridenhour sought to expose still shrouds our democracy: engaging in war based on lies. Torturing detainees. Holding enemy combatants without due process. Keeping secret the interpretations of law that justify targeted killings. Few people are willing to come forward to stop these unconstitutional acts. Given the risks, can we blame them?

As we look to the next decade, it is the duty of all of us to demand meaningful protections for national security and intelligence whistleblowers so that they can safely follow in the steps of Ron Ridenhour. Then we will have truly honored his bravery.

U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson was the winner of the first Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling.