5 famous whistleblowers who risked everything

Digital freedom
4 mins
An illustration of a whistle decorated with the Stars and Stripes.

“See something, say something” is a safety and awareness campaign running across multiple cities in the United States.

If you see misconduct, criminal activity or just something suspicious, you are expected to alert the authorities.

But what if it’s the authorities that are doing something wrong, by abusing their power or acting suspiciously? Ideally, an institution should have internal complaints mechanisms, an Ombudsperson or an external anti-corruption agency.

Members of the United States Intelligence Community, however, find it difficult to raise concerns internally and those that do are often ignored.

Additionally, whistleblower protection often does not apply (e.g., to contractors), and must only be reported to Congress.

What happens to those who do manage to blow the whistle? Of the famous examples below, one is in jail, one has done jail time, one is awaiting trial, one is in exile, and the other is on the run.

1. Edward Snowden

In 2013, ‘Ed’ left his job with a U.S. defense contractor for Hong Kong, taking with him 10,000 documents detailing the U.S. surveillance apparatus.

Snowden handed this trove to journalists who for years continued to release the information in various dossiers covering surveillance, espionage, hacking, and civil rights violations.

Edward Snowden was given asylum in Ecuador but, due to the U.S. canceling his passport en route, became stranded at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. He was granted temporary asylum in Russia, where he continues to live until today.

2. Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and detailed the continuous lies of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration regarding the war in Vietnam.

The documents were photocopies Ellsberg was able to make during his work at the RAND Corporation and, at first, he tried to convince Senator Fulbright to release the papers to the Senate (because a Senator could not be prosecuted for something they say on the floor).

When that failed, Ellsberg sent the documents to the New York Times, which quickly received a court order forbidding them to publish or report on its contents.

Ellsberg, still on the run from the FBI, mailed the documents to other newspapers, including the Washington Post, which finally published the stories.

Ellsberg’s trial in 1973 revealed that the government had illegally wiretapped Ellsberg and even broke into his psychiatrist’s office to find discrediting information. The case was thrown out by the court.

The Pentagon Papers were only fully released and made available to the public in 2011.

3. Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning was an Intelligence Analyst with the U.S. Army stationed in Iraq. She had access to classified databases containing videos, diplomatic cables, and war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq—which she released to Wikileaks.

Some of the content detailed American war crimes in Iraq, including the murder of Reuters journalists and those who aided the wounded.

Chelsea Manning told an online acquaintance about her actions, which resulted in her capture. Chelsea faced charges that could have resulted in the death penalty but received a sentence of 35 years in maximum security prison.

In 2017, the sentence was reduced to seven years by President Obama, and she was released the same year.

4. Reality Winner

A U.S. military contractor employed Reality Winner, where she was able to obtain a document about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, which she made available to the publication The Intercept.

Authorities caught Winner because of metadata found on the documents which revealed the printer she used. She was sentenced to five years and three months in jail, the longest such sentence by a federal court for releasing information to the media.

There is hope Winner might be pardoned by President Trump, who voiced his support for Winner in a Tweet.

5. Shadow Brokers

The Shadow Brokers are a hacking group (and whistleblowers) active since 2010. They alert the public about security vulnerabilities created and exploited by the NSA.

The leader of the Shadow Brokers is Harold T. Martin III, a contractor with the same company Snowden worked with before he blew the whistle.

Some speculate that Shadow Brokers is the work of Russian counter-intelligence, acting with the aim of undermining the NSA in its global operations.

Harold T. Martin III is currently under arrest and awaiting trial.

Bonus: Paul Revere a whistleblower?

Paul Revere was an American Revolutionary who literally blew a whistle in 1775, alerting American revolutionaries about the arrival of British colonial militia.

While not commonly referred to as a whistleblower, the British forces did at the time rule over the colonies. Their acts of power were lawful, while the revolution was illegal.

Doing what’s right is not always doing what’s legal, and the many women and men who do what’s right in the face of jail time or even the death are heroes.

Anonymity is an essential tool for staying safe as a whistleblower. Be careful, but do get help, from reputable journalists and lawyers and technologists when alerting the world about the crimes conducted by authority.

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.