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"Even the most brilliant and impeccably ethical leader of any large organization will eventually develop some skeletons in the closet because of the nature of large organizations ... no leader of any large organization can avoid undertaking acts he does not want made public. Therefore, the desire for personal loyalty among subordinates is a universal phenomenon among such leaders."

--Anthony Downs,

Inside Bureaucracy

In one of the latest Trump fiascoes, the one leading to the impeachment inquiry, whistle-blowers take center stage. Many see whistle-blowers as heroes uncovering corrupt practices for our democracy to fix. Whistle-blowers betray their agencies and bosses out of loyalty to higher powers, the American people and the U.S. Constitution.

I used to love whistle-blowers. Then I met some. While at the Brookings Institution researching the Clinton bureaucracy, I would take whistle-blowers out to lunch, since they liked to talk and I liked to listen. I found a more complex reality than the David versus Goliath plotline spread by the news media and Hollywood.

While playing a vital role in our democracy, real-world whistle-blowers fall on a continuum from ridiculous to sublime. The public rarely discerns the difference.

Starting with the ridiculous, the media and scholars rarely explore "low-performing whistle-blowers." These are unproductive, contentious employees who report essentially fictitious waste, fraud or abuse to hide behind the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects whistle-blowers from discipline or dismissal. Many bureaucrats categorize this as the most abundant species of whistle-blower.

Second come megalomaniacs like CIA operative Osborne Cox, John Malkovich's character in the Coen brothers' black comedy Burn After Reading. With a deep faith in their own greatness, these whistle-blowers trash their employers on flimsy, self-serving grounds. As in the case of Richard Clarke in the George W. Bush administration, megalomaniacs are sometimes right, but rarely wise.

Third come conniving bureaucrats like FBI Associate Director Mark Felt (aka Deep Throat), who helped uncover Watergate. (Technically, Felt leaked rather than blowing the whistle, but the same logic applies.) Felt undermined bosses he hoped to replace, signaling virtue, when motivated at least in part by ambition and spite. Yet people often do good things for mixed motives: The bottom line is that Felt helped America.

Finally, sublime whistle-blowers do the right thing for the right reason, even though doing wrong would have been far easier. Before going public, they complained through official channels and got shut down.

The paradigmatic example is the late Ernie Fitzgerald, the Air Force official who in 1968 disobeyed instructions to lie to Congress about a $2.3 billion cost overrun. Ernie wasn't looking for trouble, but when forced to choose between being a loyal "team player" and a law-abiding public servant, he chose the right thing.

The Air Force fired Ernie in retaliation. After Congress made the Pentagon take him back, the military gave Ernie the silent treatment for decades. A friend of mine worked in the Pentagon right down the hall from Ernie, but feared being seen with him. By the time we met in 1993, Ernie had become nearly as unhinged as the brass had claimed all along.

In our free society, most organizations of any size have whistle-blowers. I serve on a school board overseeing public schools which have had a few whistle-blowers over the years, some credible, some not.

Alas, like everything else, whistle-blowing has polarized. Hollywood and much of the media lionize whistle-blowers exposing the misdeeds of business, the Pentagon, and police. Fox News exalts whistle-blowers from educational institutions and nonprofits.

To honor truth, we should eschew polarization and instead judge whistle-blowers case by case. On hearing about a whistle-blower, I sometimes call friends who might know the inside story, which often contradicts public accounts of heroes and villains. Having some insider knowledge of Ivy League universities, I interpret the ongoing bribery-for-admissions scandals in the worst possible light. At least as regards admissions, these corrupt organizations deserve prosecution.

Regarding one noted Ivy League graduate, President Donald Trump, I see nothing in the man's past behavior in business or recent behavior in government that would lead me to trust his version of events more than those of officials from the CIA, NSA, or virtually anywhere else save the KGB (now called SVR).

Some anti-Trump whistle-blowers may be more conniving than sublime, but that doesn't make them wrong.


Robert Maranto ( is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and has penned numerous books on government, including Beyond a Government of Strangers.

Editorial on 10/21/2019

Print Headline: Blowing whistles


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