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The Top Ten Whistleblowers You Never Heard Of But Should Know

man in tunnel, whistleblower
Whistleblowers have been a consistent part of American history for hundreds of years. Yet, many experience more blowback than praise for their efforts. (Photo: Pixabay)

Ordinary people do extraordinary things all the time, some become whistleblowers and blow the whistle on some of the U.S.’ biggest scandals.

Whistleblowers have long been a part of American history, though depending on what the whistleblower is revealing society’s acceptance and willingness to protect them has varied widely.

One of the first incidents of whistleblowing recorded in U.S. history targeted a U.S. Navy commodore named Esek Hopkins. According to Allison Stanger, author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump, in the late 1770s, Hopkins was torturing British prisoners of war and though he sought retaliation on the whistleblowers that reported him, Congress intervened protecting them.

Technically, a whistleblower is a person who exposes any kind of information or activity that is considered illegal, unethical, or incorrect within a private or public organization. This person can expose everything from fraud and waste to criminal conspiracies and war crimes.

In our politically and morally-conscious times, perhaps this long-held totem of righteousness and transparency is more relevant than ever. In addition to the more popular cases of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, here is our list of the Top Ten Unknown Whistleblowers:

10. Colleen Rowley

Coleen during her talk, "Secrecy Kills" at OHM 2013.

Coleen during her talk, “Secrecy Kills” at OHM 2013. (Photo: frederic.jacobs)

An FBI special agent since 1981, Rowley had initially questioned one of the men who would become a 9/11 hijacker, Zacharia Moussi, but further investigation was thwarted by the FBI. The government organization seemingly “sabotaged” the investigation by the Minneapolis, Minnesota Field Office, which had known about Moussi since 1990 and were aware of his increasing suspicious behavior a month before the 9/11 attacks. Rowley believed that the lack of cooperation from the FBI prevented her efforts to obtain a warrant to search Moussi’s computer.

Subsequently, after 9/11, Rowley accused the FBI of making misleading statements to the public to show they had no idea the attacks would happen. She also penned a 13-page letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, becoming a smoking gun that reflected the need for major change at the FBI to prevent further errors in protocol.

Rowley was rewarded for her efforts when she jointly held the TIME “Person of the Year” award in 2002 with two other women credited as whistleblowers: Sherron Watkins from Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Rowley retired from the FBI in 2004, and advocates for the agency to to strike a better balance between rigorous investigations and respecting civilian privacy.

9. Jeffery Sterling

In 2010, Sterling, an American lawyer and former CIA employee, was charged with violating the Espionage Act for revealing details about Operation Merlin (a covert operation to supply Iran with flawed nuclear warhead blueprints) to journalist James Risen, published in his book.

Sterling was convicted of espionage in January 2015 and sentenced to ​three and a half years in prison and released in January 2018. His conviction was based entirely on “very powerful circumstantial evidence,” but no direct evidence that he shared any classified information with Risen.

This wasn’t the first time Sterling spoke out against the system: joining the CIA in 1993, he filed a complaint in 2000 for racial discrimination in their management, ultimately leading to his contract being terminated in 2002. Additionally, Sterling earned a national 2010 Anti-Fraud Award from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association for helping break up a Medicare fraud ring, leading to estimated recoveries and savings of US $32 million.

8. Linda Almonte

After she began working at JP Morgan Chase — considered the largest bank in the United States and the sixth-largest bank in the world by total assets — Almonte was asked to evaluate a deal to sell 23,000 credit card accounts from customers behind on their payments. This process involved the sale of such accounts at a bargain rate to debt collection agencies, who pocketed any money they could subsequently collect from the customers.

In 2009, this particular deal earned Chase almost $200 million. After reviewing more than a third of the files for these accounts, Almonte’s team observed that over half of them contained major errors and that the actual debt was lower than what Chase claimed. In some cases, Chase actually owed the customer money.

When Almonte alerted her boss about the potential fraud she was fired immediately from her mid-level executive position—after she balked at an order to continue selling the misrepresented assets. She had only been working for the company for six months in the San Antonio, Texas branch. Chase resumed completion of the project by the end of 2009. Afterwards, Almonte filed a whistleblower claim with the SEC in November 2010. She entered into a modest settlement with Chase that prohibited her from coming forward publicly.

7. Cathy Harris

Cathy Harris, author pic from Flying While Black: A Whistleblower's Story.

Cathy Harris, author pic from Flying While Black: A Whistleblower’s Story. (Photo: Amazon)

Racial profiling that was routine at a major international airport was exposed by Harris, a former Senior Inspector for the U.S. Customs Service (USCS) at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. Working at the airport for over twenty years, her observations were detailed in her 2001 book, “Flying While Black: A Whistleblower’s Story”, recounting numerous incidents of black travelers being stopped, frisked, body-cavity-searched, detained for hours at local hospitals, forced to take laxatives, bowel-monitored and subjected to public and private racist/colorist humiliation.

In particular, women of African descent were wrongfully targeted for detentions and strip-searches as possible drug couriers. Harris eventually formed the Customs Employees Against Discrimination Association (CEADA) to combat this practice. Cathy’s story was featured in several media outlets including Oprah Oxygen Cable Company, Lifetime T.V. with Erin Brockovich, BET with Tavis Smiley, and CNN among others. Harris also received several awards for her vigilance from various organizations, including the 2014 Baldwin Award from ACLU Boston.

6. Michael Ruppert

Ruppert worked with the Los Angeles Police Department from 1973 to 1978 and was assigned to handle narcotics investigations in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He eventually made discoveries that led him to believe he’d stumbled onto a large network of narcotics traffickers and that the U.S. military, as well as the LAPD, might be involved.

Decades later, he would contest the CIA director John Deutch‘s assertions that the CIA was not complicit in drug trafficking during a town hall meeting at Los Angeles’ Locke High School on November 5, 1995. At the meeting, Ruppert publicly alleged the existence of classified CIA programs named “Amadeus”, “Pegasus”, and “Watchtower”, claiming to possess evidence for the programs including redacted documents from “Watchtower”, and stated that CIA officers had attempted to involve him in protecting these CIA operations during the late 1970s.

Ruppert was also a well-known “conspiracy theorist” who wrote books about the 9/11 attacks and energy issues, and was featured in numerous documentary films such as 2009’s Collapse. Ruppert eventually died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2014.

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5. Samuel Provance

Samuel Provance in Baghdad, May 2003.

Samuel Provance in Baghdad, May 2003. (Photo: Samuel.provance)

After the revelations of inhumane treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib in 2004, Samuel Provance believed young soldiers were scapegoated while superiors tried to divert attention away from the truth about their behaviors and actions on duty.

Provance was a system administrator for U.S. Army Military Intelligence at the Abu Ghraib prison and would publicly reveal the role of interrogators in the abuses and their efforts to cover up the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse. He was the only uniformed military intelligence officer to defy an order of silence from his commanders at the 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion.

His testimony disclosed that military police and civilian investigators abused detainees. He allegedly fractured many friendships and work relationships in the process. However, on October 22, 2009, Provance was given a letter of commendation signed by former President Jimmy Carter and 15,000 others, for his “uncommon courage in defending the rule of law and standing up against torture”.

4. Cate Jenkins

Within days after the September 11 attacks in New York City, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed the air was safe for responders to work amongst the debris in their quest to recover the remains. There are even claims that the hesitations and concerns from responders themselves, regarding their health, were dismissed.

Cate Jenkins, an EPA scientist since 1979, was also skeptical and took action. She wrote memos to the EPA Inspector General, U.S. Congress, and FBI detailing the chemical composition of dust from Ground Zero as hazardous, which contained asbestos and alarming PH levels.

She alerted The New York Times in 2006 and said in a 2009 CBS interview that the EPA explicitly lied about the danger of the dust which caused chemical burns in the lungs of responders, debilitating illnesses in many that included fatalities—all of which could have been prevented with proper safety equipment. Furthermore, Jenkins claims that the EPA has been misleading about evidence of debris inhalation hazards since the 1980s.

Her warnings went unheeded and she was fired but successfully sued in 2012 to be reinstated. The truth deriving from Jenkins’ efforts is now public knowledge: in 2016, Newsweek reported that doctors have linked nearly 70 types of cancer to Ground Zero. Tragically, many are rare, aggressive and hard to treat; nearly all are lung diseases. Upwards of 400,000 people are estimated to be affected.

3. Thomas Andrews Drake

Thomas Drake had worked at the National Security Agency (NSA) in various analyst and management positions for seven years. He blew the whistle on the NSA’s Trailblazer Project—a program intended to analyze data carried on communications networks like the Internet.

Drake felt that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizures, and other laws and regulations. He contacted The Baltimore Sun which published articles about waste, fraud, and abuse at the NSA, including stories about Trailblazer. Subsequently, he was pressured to resign from the NSA in 2008.

Two years later in April 2010, Drake was indicted by a grand jury on various charges, including five counts of violating the Espionage Act, obstructing justice and making false statements. If convicted, he potentially faced 35 years in prison. After the May 22, 2011 broadcast of a “60 Minutes” episode on the Drake case, the government dropped all of the charges against Drake and agreed not to seek any jail time in return for Drake’s agreement to plead guilty to a misdemeanor of exceeding authorized use of the agency’s computer system. Drake was sentenced to one year of probation and 240 hours of community service.

2. Katharine Gun

In 2003 while she was a Mandarin translator at the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency in England—Katherine Gun discovered an email from the American intelligence agency, the National Security Agency.

In the message, the U.S. government asked the United Kingdom to help spy on six nations at the U.N. Security Council in New York to help swing U.N. approval for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Knowing it was unethical and against U.N. protocol, Gun printed the email for evidence—which was also breeching protocol in her work—risking two years prison time.

She passed the letter to a colleague, and it subsequently made front page news in the British paper, The Observer, in March of that year. Retaliation from the U.N. nations was swift, yet President George W. Bush still led the invasion of Iraq shortly after.

Gun confessed to her role in the leak and subsequently lost her job, was arrested, and spent a night in jail. She was charged under the Official Secrets Act eight months later but it was dropped a few months after when the prosecution withdrew its evidence. She now lives in Turkey with her husband and their child. Although Gun felt that her action was overshadowed by the war, her remarkable story of speaking out against it just before it ensued was depicted in the 2019 film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley.

1. Joseph Darby

In January 2004, Darby, a then-Military Police Corp stationed at Abu Ghraib prison, in Abu Ghraib, Iraq, provided 2 compact discs of photographs to Special Agent Tyler Pieron of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command. The CD’s revealed shocking images of U.S. soldiers enforcing inhumane treatment on prisoners such as torturing them in compromising positions and having them pile naked on top of each other while U.S security personnel gestured with their thumbs up in the background.

Darby’s photos sparked an investigation that led to the implication of several soldiers violating the Geneva Convention (protocol for humanitarian treatment in war), as well as the revelation of even more atrocities such as: videotaping and photographing naked male and female detainees, rape of female detainees, forcing male detainees to wear women’s underwear, and photographing dead detainees.

Knowing he would be blowing the whistle on his own friends including perhaps most notably, Lynndie England, Darby relented that their actions “violated everything I personally believed in and all I’d been taught about the rules of war.” Naturally, there was some retaliation from fellow soldiers and civilians in the aftermath who believed he was a traitor, resulting in even death threats towards him. However, his efforts were generally commended by the U.S. public who were horrified by the photos, leading him to receive a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on May 16, 2005.

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