The Five Most (In)Famous Whistleblowers In History

The heroes and goats of whistleblowing history.

Not all whistleblowers end up in the news. Reporting a workplace safety violation to OSHA, or a potential reporting crime to the SEC — whistleblowing incidents big and small are happening every day in every state across the country. But today we’re talking about the big kahunas — the most (in)famous whistleblowers in history. Here are the five that top the list:

1. Mark Felt — The Godfather of Whistleblowers

Back when the Watergate scandal dominated headlines, Mark Felt blew the whistle on a presidency. By acting as the cleverly named “Deep Throat” source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, he provided information on Richard Nixon’s malfeasance that ultimately forced Nixon to resign the presidency.

Though there was plenty of speculation, Felt’s identity was incredibly kept secret for 32 years before being revealed in 2005. Call him the godfather of whistleblowers.

2. Daniel Ellsberg — The Pentagon Papers

Ellsberg was the State Department employee who leaked the Pentagon Papers, which detailed the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The revelations were explosive: The documents indicated that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to Congress and that the U.S. had secretly expanded the scope of the war by bombing nearby Cambodia and Laos.

The Nixon administration went as far as to try to get the Supreme Court to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the papers, but were ultimately unsuccessful. For his part, Ellsberg was charged with conspiracy espionage and theft of government property (though the charges were eventually dismissed).  

3. Linda Tripp — The Lewinsky Scandal

Tripp was a Pentagon employee who found herself in the middle of a scandal after secretly recording her and Monica Lewinsky discussing Lewinsky’s relationship with Bill Clinton. Tripp ended up surrendering the tapes in return for not being made to face a charge of illegal wiretapping.

As the scandal progress Tripp, perhaps reluctantly, became a notable public figure; she was even portrayed by the actor John Goodman on Saturday Night Live. Tripp maintains that her motives were entirely patriotic, but near the end of the Clinton administration she was fired from her job at the Pentagon, which she believes was in retaliation for her involvement in the Lewinsky case.

4. Jeffrey Wigand — The Insider

Wigand was the Vice President of research and development at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson back in the early 1990s. While working there, he says that he became aware that Brown & Williamson executives knowingly approved the addition of carcinogenic and addictive products to the company’s tobacco.

A few years later, he went on 60 Minutes and publicly accused the company of intentionally manipulating its tobacco blend in order to increase the effect of nicotine. Wigand received harassment and death threats as a result, but at least he got to be played by Russell Crowe in a movie.

5. Edward Snowden — The Whistleblower of all Whistleblowers

Snowden, a former CIA employee, leaked classified NSA information (mostly regarding global surveillance programs) without authorization. He provided thousands of documents to journalists who eventually published pieces based on that information in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post as well as other outlets. The Department of Justice has since charged him with espionage and theft of government property, and has restricted has passport. Snowden is variously viewed as hero and a traitor and everything in between, and it’s not clear what his ultimate legacy will be. What is clear is that, at least for now, he is confined to Russia (which has granted him asylum through 2020) and has had his life substantially restricted as a direct consequence of his whistleblowing.

If you’re thinking of filing a whistleblower claim, you probably want to end up more like Felt or Ellsberg than Snowden. The bottom line is that following procedures is important; regardless of what you think of his motives, Snowden’s failure to do so was a big mistake.

If you’re considering blowing the whistle on your employer, you need to answer the following question: What is my evidence? Can I give it to someone else? Who can I give it to? These aren’t easy questions, and you’re going to need a seasoned attorney to help you navigate them. John L Mays has an entire team that is experienced in employment law and clearing the hurdles that most commonly prevent employees from reporting whistleblower issues.

We can help. Call us today.

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