We Need A Whistleblower Prize

This Washington Post piece looking at what has happened to several notable government whistleblowers is sobering.

The former high-ranking National Security Agency analyst now sells iPhones. The top intelligence officer at the CIA lives in a motor home outside Yellowstone National Park and spends his days fly-fishing for trout. The FBI translator fled Washington for the West Coast . . .

. . . Peter Van Buren, a veteran Foreign Service officer who blew the whistle on waste and mismanagement of the Iraq reconstruction program, most recently found himself working at a local arts and crafts store and learned a lot about “glitter and the American art of scrapbooking.”

“What happens when you are thrown out of the government and blacklisted is that you lose your security clearance and it’s very difficult to find a grown-up job in Washington.”

High-level whistleblowers know when they come forward that they're sacrificing their national security clearance, likely their jobs, and quite possibly their freedom. Set aside for a moment what you think about the actions of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Imagine you have a top-level security clearance, and you discover in the course of your work evidence of illegal government activity. Even going through the proper internal channels carries risks, and aren't likely to change much, anyway. (Thomas Drake, remember, actually went through the proper internal channels to expose government spying -- he was prosecuted, anyway. He now works at an Apple store.) Would you risk your career, your lifestyle, your family's security, and possibly your freedom to expose it? How serious would it need to be for your to consider going public?

It needn't even be something as dire as national security. I've seen and reported on countless law enforcement officers whose careers were cut short (or worse) when they reported wrongdoing by other cops, or more systemic problems within their police agencies.

It seems to me that we're asking an awful lot of whistleblowers. We're hoping their sense of right and wrong and devotion to public service will compel them to come forward even if that likely means an end to their career in public service -- at best. If we really value whistleblowers, we need to provide them with a bit more incentive. And it needs to come from the private sector. The government certainly isn't going to reward them for exposing government malfeasance, President Obama's campaign promises notwithstanding.

A series of prizes for government employees who risk their livelihoods to shed light on government abuse might be one way to provide an incentive for more whistleblowing. It needn't just be one big prize. Think about a foundation that might give out multiple prizes, at all levels of government. Yes, it would need to be pretty well funded. The idea here would be to give out prizes significant enough to compensate for the losses of income, the foregoing of careers, and potential legal expenses. But it seems to me that there are enough people -- and enough affluent people -- concerned about NSA spying, police abuse, and government waste to make something like this happen. In fact, there needn't even be just one foundation, or one series of prizes. Perhaps conservatives aren't eager to reward someone like Edward Snowden, or have no interest in compensating a cop who exposes racial profiling or spying on protest groups. Fair enough. A conservative-oriented whistleblower prize, then, could reward government employees who expose waste, fraud, and politically-motivated regulation or application of the tax laws. Perhaps the foundations themselves could eventually be staffed and run by whistleblowers -- a way to provide them with continued meaningful employment in public service.

I suppose there may be some legal barriers to compensating whistleblowers like Snowden or Manning, who are facing or have been convicted on criminal charges. Given that politicians like Rep. Peter King are calling for the arrest of the journalists who published the information Snowden exposed, it's not inconceivable to think that some in Congress may argue that such a prize encourages law-breaking, and could work for legislation to make it illegal. Perhaps one of these foundations would need to be based overseas, then. The U.S. government could still complain, and perhaps attempt to block delivery of the prize. But the Nobel Peace Prize, for example, has often honored dissidents in countries who have deemed the laureate's activism illegal.

The point here is that if we want to encourage whistleblowing -- whether it's in select areas of government or all of them -- we need to first understand the obstacles in the way and then, independent of government, come up with countering incentives to override them.