What do food farms, Republican senators, and the military have in common?
The answer, of course, is that they don’t like whistleblowers.
Whistle-blowers are folks that work within an organization and see something unsavory, and then ‘blow the whistle’ on their employers by going to a higher authority. In many situations, it is only through the efforts of whistleblowers that large-scale manipulations have been exposed.
For example, David Graham is an epidemiologist who exposed the problems with Viox. Mark Klein exposed the famous Room 641A, a monitoring facility built into an AT&T hub to eavesdrop on phone calls and text messages. Mark Felt, Deepthroat, was largely responsible for Watergate and the exposure of Nixon. Jeffrey Wigand was an executive at Brown & Williamson who exposed the practice of manipulating the amount of nicotine in cigarettes, and is one of the men who is probably most responsible for exposing the dangers of smoking to the public.
Despite all their benefits, whistle blowing is hard. For an employee to stand up and expose corruption and manipulation of his employers demands extraordinary courage, and even then most whistle-blowers do not get many happy endings. Mordechai Vanunu, who blew the whistle on the Israel nuclear weapons program, was lured by Israeli agents back into Israel, tried in secret, and sentenced to 18 years of jail. Gary Webb, who exposed the links of the CIA and Nicaraguan drug traders, was found killed by two bullets in 2004. Jesselyn Raddack, who was a DOJ lawyer, who showed that the DOJ destroyed documents and lied about the interrogation of John Walter Lindh, was fired from her job and various folks within the DOJ tried to get her license revoked for years. I could fill several entries of this blog with examples of whistle-blowers who were harassed, beaten, or killed for what they revealed to the world.
So, in most civilized states, various laws were passed to protect whistleblowers a little. The Whistleblower Act of 1989 protects federal whistleblowers, for example, and there are some organizations like the National Whistleblower Center to try and protect the whistleblowers.
This is all great if you are the public, but what if you are likely to be whistleblown (whistle-blew??) on? What happens if you happen to be the evildoer, and pesky whistle-blowers constantly threaten to wreck your business?
Let’s say that you’re an animal farm, for example. You raise chickens and calves and other animals. Your workers occasionally need entertainment, and instead of killing the animals humanely they take some time to torture them (think long and hard before clicking that link, by the way). Or you are a dairy, and your employees like to torment the cows? Or you like to mutilate hogs for fun? These are things that you probably don’t want the public to know, but pesky whistle-blowers keep filming you torturing the animals that you own, which will eventually end up inconveniencing you. Who can you turn to?
Well, meet your new friend, Congresswoman Annette Sweeney,
Dungeon Keeper Congresswoman Annette Sweeney (GOP, Iowa).
Your new friend is sponsoring legislation in Iowa to make it illegal to film or take pictures exposing an animal farm. If you take footage that shows, for example, workers torturing animals, and have the audacity to “process, produce or distribute” such footage, under her proposed legislation, you could be facing 10 years in jail and $100,000 fines.
Sweeney is not alone, by the way. In Florida, Senator Norman is sponsoring an identical bill, with an added measure of crazy (his bill would make it illegal to take pictures of a farm from the air or from the road). Sen. Norman apparently introduced the bill after revolting footage of chicken farms surfaced and various farms began to worry about their image.
This is an interesting technique. Faced with a potential PR disaster, the animal farms (helped by companies like Monsanto, which deserves its own sub-blog at some point) decided that the best defense against whistle-blowers was not to attack the whistle-blowers, but to make the very act of whistle-blowing illegal. The idea is probably not that these laws would survive a lot of legal challenges – they would not. But they do make it much scarier for an individual to step forward and report on animal abuse and cruelty, and could potentially stave off future debacles like the HBO documentary documenting abuse of animals by the Wiles family of Wiles Hog farms. As such, where they fail as legal instruments they work pretty well as manipulation instruments.
But that is small potatoes compared to what happened in Congress when it tried to pass a new law to support whistle-blowers, the WhistleBlower Protection Enhancement Act, in 2010. The act was meant to protect whistleblowers and provide for some uniformity in how whistle-blowers were treated when revealing abuse or fraud. The act sailed through Congress, but as it was about to pass, a Senator put a secret hold on the legislation.
A secret hold is an interesting manipulation technique. Basically, any senator can place a ‘hold’ anonymously on a bill, even after it passes both chambers. The name of the senator is not released, and once the hold is placed, the bill finds itself in limbo – neither passed nor defeated, just… on hold.
You can only place a hold on a bill for 6 days, however. No problem – you can tag team: find a friendly senator, and on day 5 you lift your hold, and he places his. In another five days, he lifts his hold, and you put yours back. With the two of you coordinating, you can hold a bill anonymously for as long as you want. In this case, two senators held the legislation up just long enough for the Senate session to end, effectively killing the bill, without ever making their names public.
Of course, the irony of two senators killing a whistle-blower protection act anonymously was already fairly apparent, but then various blogs and commentators pushed to identify the two senators, and the names of Senators Jon Kyl and Jeff Sessions, two Republicans, soon emerged.
It’s not obvious why these two senators decided to kill the whistle-blowing bill, but clearly someone within the Republican party dislikes whistleblowers. This May, for example, Rep. Michael Grimm decided to introduce his own whistle-blowing bill. The key provision of his bill is that it requires whistle-blowers to inform their superiors of the fraud or abuse, requires the SEC to inform companies that it is investigating them, and generally makes it much harder for employees of financial companies to become whistle-blowers.
Why would a senator do this? At first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, mostly because there is no inherent reason that Republicans or Democrats should dislike whistle-blowers. Democrats tend to like whistle-blowers because it is often an empowering story of one principled man standing up against a corrupt, powerful corporation or organization. Republicans like them because they tend to highlight fraud and abuse and save taxpayer money. So why the new Republican anti-whistle blowing agenda?
One possible explanation is that corporations are paying more attention to whistle-blowers lately. As the total amount of dollars at play has grown, so has the danger of annoying whistle-blowers moving from being nuisances to becoming full-blown problems, especially in the finance industry, and so some corporations have moved to make whistle-blowing itself more difficult as a form of insurance. As the cost of whistle-blowing has gone up, so has the efforts of these corporations to push for legislation that would protect them from these type of costs.
So what about the military? Well, lately the Defense department seems to dislike one particular whistle-blower, private Bradley Manning. Manning, of course, is one of the presumed sources of Wikileaks, and if so he would be one of the most prolific whistle-blowers in history, having passed 250,000 diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Many of these leaks have been important – many give them credit for catalyzing the Arab Spring, the popular revolts changing the face of the Arab world over the past few months.
Since his arrest, Bradley Manning has been kept in a solitary cell for 23 hours a day, naked, and has yet to be charged, well over a year after his arrest. Even the Secretary of State’s chief spokesman has spoken out against his treatment. Basically, like any organization, the department of defense does not like someone releasing their secrets, even if those secrets include flagrant examples of abuse, criminal activity, and other unsavory items. Unlike most organizations, though, the military can actually imprison its whistle-blowers and keep them in their own jails for a long time.
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I like whistle-blowers. They are often the only way to discover new manipulations, and to bring to light behavior that needs to be curbed. They are the reverse of manipulation, in many ways – manipulation typically heavily benefits a few by slightly inconveniencing a large number of people. Whistle-blowers provide a lot of people (the public) a small but significant benefit, at the heavy cost to a few (the corrupt and fraudulent). Is it any wonder, then, that these few expand a lot of resources to proactively fight them?