The history of influential whistleblowers in U.S. politics goes all the way back to Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw during the Revolutionary War, during which the two U.S. Navy officers shone a light on Commodore Esek Hopkins’ torture of captured British personnel. As a result, a year later saw the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1778 implemented to protect informants that came forward with sensitive information.
In more recent decades further whistleblowers have come forward with information about everything from the Watergate scandal to White House infidelity. Their contributions have become so entrenched in US history that July 30 has now been designated as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day. Here are some of the most influential whistleblowers who helped shape America.
1. Daniel Ellsberg
In 1971, former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg exposed U.S. interference in Vietnam prior to the commencement of formal hostilities. The so-called Pentagon Papers exposed the role of successive administrations before and during the war. With casualties mounting on both sides and public opinion already waning, Ellsberg’s revelations played a key role in undermining Washington’s justifications for continuing the war.
The Nixon administration sought to bring charges of conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property against the Pentagon analyst. Furthermore, the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist were burgled under instructions from the White House. The charges against Ellsberg were dropped by a federal court.
2. Perry Fellwock
Later in 1971 and inspired by Ellsberg, NSA analyst Perry Fellwock made his organization – and more importantly its surveillance activity – known to the world.
The most sensational part of Fellwock’s revelations was that the previously top secret NSA did not only keep a watch on overseas enemies (and friends) – it also spied on U.S. citizens. Consequently, the Senate Church Committee brought forward legislation to prevent, or at least restrict this domestic surveillance. The USA Patriot Act of 2001 that followed the 9/11 attacks has since reversed some of that legislation, but Fellwock’s legacy retains its importance for the changes it invoked.
3. Mark Felt
Labeled “Deep Throat” by the Washington Post Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt came forward in 1972 with information about the Nixon White House’s links to the Watergate burglary. This led to Nixon’s resignation two years later, and to this day he remains the only serving U.S. president to walk away from the Oval Office.
The Post reporters stayed true to the journalistic code and their source’s name kept under wraps until almost three decades. Having provided the facts and leads to confirm Nixon’s role in the affair, Felt’s role as one of America’s most influential whistleblowers is undoubted.
4. William Marcus
In the early 1990s, William Marcus’ revelations highlighted corporate wrongdoing in drinking water.
After gaining knowledge of the Office of Drinking Water’s intention to add fluoride to drinking water supplies, William Marcus made his concerns public. A senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, Marcus reported his fear that the policy could lead to increased cases of cancer.
Not only did numerous chemical companies attempt to conceal or play down his claims, he was also fired from the EPA making his concerns public. This decision was reversed by a court and he was reinstated to his job.
5. Frederic Whitehurst
FBI chemist Frederic Whitehurst’s misgivings about the Bureau’s scientific inadequacies cast doubt on the investigations of a number of serious bombing incidents.
He testified to a Senate committee in 1997 that several investigations may have been flawed due to the lack of due care and process exercised by the FBI’s crime lab. These included the Oklahoma City bombing, and the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Even after his departure from the FBI, Whitehurst’s legacy through his work providing scrutiny of forensic justice for the National Whistleblower Center.
6. Linda Tripp
Perhaps the most famous whistleblower of all, White House staffer Linda Tripp went public in 1998 with information about President Clinton’s extra marital affair with intern Monica Lewinsky.
After at first denying the claims of wrongdoing, Clinton became the second ever U.S. president to be impeached after being found to have lied under oath and attempting to obstruct the course of justice.
For her troubles, Tripp experienced various forms of retaliation from the Clinton Administration. She received a cash settlement in 2003, as well as pension rights and clearance to work again for the federal government.
7. Russ Tice
The NSA again hit the headlines for the wrong reasons in 2005 when intelligence analyst Russ Tice resurfaced concerns about his organization’s illegal espionage against its own citizens.
After receiving authorization by the Bush Administration in 2001, the NSA had resumed warrantless wiretaps to carry out surveillance on U.S. citizens. This enabled the agency to monitor internet traffic, SMS, and other forms of communication.
The official line is that under pressure from the media and public opinion as a result of Tice’s information, the Bush Administration ordered the closure of the program in 2007.
8. Chelsea Manning
No list of whistleblowers would be complete without mentioning the haul of hundreds of thousands of classified documents that were made public by intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning mainly via WikiLeaks in 2010.
Far-ranging in their exposure, the documents provided damaging insights into various incidents from the 2007 airstrikes on Baghdad to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. A range of correspondence from U.S. diplomatic missions was also leaked into the public domain which highlighted intelligence gathering on then-UN Secretary Generals Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan, as well as War on Terror policies.
9. Edward Snowden
2013 saw the NSA’s intercepting of domestic communications resurface yet again thanks to contractor Edward Snowden.
The Booz Allen Hamilton staffer exposed the NSA’s so-called ‘PRISM’ program that is used to gather intelligence from various internet service providers. Combined with enriched analytics about user searches by Google, PRISM gave the NSA access to data that is easier to encrypt and use. For at least the third time, the NSA had been exposed by a whistleblower for espionage activities against U.S. citizens.