Corruption Melvin Goodman Politics

Why There Are So Few Whistleblowers

The fact that there are so few whistleblowers points to the failure of the system, particularly the failure of the oversight system. 
Photo of whistleblower Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning in 2018. (mompl / Flickr)(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By Melvin Goodman / CounterPunch

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.  The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

—George Bernard Shaw.

Adam Schiff’s new book, “Midnight in Washington: How We Almost Lost Our Democracy and Still Could,” makes a strong case for the importance of whistleblowing, particularly in these fractured times.  Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, argues that his committee is “uniquely dependent on whistleblowers” because of the “classified nature” of its work. Without whistleblowers, the congressional intelligence committees would  be “almost completely reliant on the intelligence agencies to self-report,” according to Schiff.  A whistleblower in the intelligence community cannot go to the press, so they must have “access to Congress” or the “whole system fails.”

The fact that there are so few whistleblowers points to the failure of the system, particularly the failure of the oversight system.  The press certainly hasn’t been helpful.  Chelsea Manning, who provided video evidence of war crimes, was dismissed by Washington Post oped writer Ruth Marcus as a “cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood.”  Edward Snowden, who provided fulsome evidence of illegal massive surveillance, was dismissed by Post senior writer David Ignatius as an “intelligence defector,” not a “whistleblower.”  NBC’s David Gregory accused then Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald of “aiding” and “abetting” Snowden, and suggested he could be charged with a crime.  So whistleblowers cannot count on support from the mainstream media.

Nor can congressional committees expect military and intelligence officers to “self-report” transgressions, let alone crimes.  We’ve recently learned that senior military officers and civilian officials have been covering up a war crime that took place in Syria two years ago, taking the lives of dozens of women and children.  According to The New York Times, the military command in Iraq and the Central Command headquarters in Florida participated in the cover-up.  Even the Department of Defense’s independent Inspector General omitted any reference in his report to the Air Force F-15 attack fighters that dropped three 500-pound bombs.  The IG was relying on an assessment of the strike that was prepared by the secret unit that carried out the strike.

The Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation certainly cannot be counted on for “self-reporting.”  We’ve been led to believe that FBI operatives didn’t take part in the sadistic interrogation activities at the CIA’s secret prisons.  According to the New York Times, at least nine FBI agents “temporarily” became CIA operatives in the prison network where torture was used.  The CIA continues to lie about the numbers of detainees who moved through the Agency’s detention program at black sites.  We still do not know how many detainees were then transferred to foreign intelligence services that conducted their own torture and abuse.  And we’ll probably never learn how many innocent people were detained by the CIA, and ended up at these black sites or at Guantanamo.  Finally, we don’t know how many detainees were actually subjected to torture and abuse.  Unfortunately, we have no self-reporting….and no reports from CIA whistleblowers.

The Whistleblower Act of 1998 that covers whistleblowers from the intelligence community requires that they must first report their case to their respective Inspectors General.  But Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have gutted the IG system, particularly in the secret national security community that requires a system of oversight.  Obama left the Department of State without an Inspector General for his first term, which may have contributed to allowing then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s misuse of sensitive intelligence, and also left the CIA without an IG for long periods of time.  When Trump realized how much scrutiny a good IG could conduct regarding his dysfunctional administration, he simply fired five of them in his last year in office, including the IGs at the Department of National Intelligence, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense.  The Congress and the mainstream media should have been all over this treachery in the executive branch of government.

The co-author of the Whistleblower Act of 1998, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), just announced he will retire next year, which leaves the Congress with very few defenders of vigorous oversight, let alone whistleblowing.  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a forty-year veteran of the Senate and a self-proclaimed defenders of whistleblowers and IGs, did nothing to counter Trump’s wholesale firing of the independent IGs in 2020.  Whistleblowers from the intelligence community are genuinely out on a limb when they decide to correct a wrong.  They get insufficient support from Congress and the media, and they even have to deal with the gratuitous criticism of someone like Molly Roberts of the Washington Post who recently wrote that their actions “look like individualism to some and narcissism to others.”

Finally, there is the case of Thomas Drake who observed all of the requirements of the Whistleblower Act, in reporting the National Security Agency’s failure to protect the privacy of American citizens.  Drake complained to his bosses; the IGs at both NSA and the Department of Defense; and finally to the House and Senate intelligence committee.  Getting nowhere, Drake finally talked to a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, but only on the basis of unclassified information.  Nevertheless, the Obama administration prosecuted Drake on the basis of the Espionage Act, which led to a harsh response from the Federal judge in the case.  The government then dropped all ten charges.

There have been too many occasions when the American people obtained essential information about national security transgressions from whistleblowers and “burglars of conscience,” and not congressional oversight committees or the media.  The Senate could not even stop Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) from revealing the identity of the CIA whistleblower who enabled the first impeachment of Donald Trump to take place.  Our democracy is embattled when CIA directors and deputy directors (Richard Helms, Robert Gates, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, John Brennan) believe they can lie to the Congress and the American people with impunity.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for


  1. What a joke. Adam Schiff is a right-wing neocon who despite overwhelming incontrovertible evidence to the contrary continues to promote “Russiagate” to the brink of a US-Russia nuclear war. Schiff is certain to prosecute any real whistleblower who contradicts the current Democratic party’s pro-war agenda.

  2. To be a whistleblower today you have to be smart enough to care, yet naive enough to think you can help change things. You can’t. The people will never hear of it and if they do they won’t care enough to do anything about it. You will be left out to hang on your own for nothing.

    I know it sounds harsh. Reality is harsh and America is one sick and twisted puppy. I fear the disease is terminal. God I hope so…..

    1. In this Land of Pretend, only the accusers / whistle-blowers go to jail, while our elected officials and non-elected criminals (military and economic forces) run the shit-show any damn way they please – this becomes clearer to me with each passing day.

      Speaking of terminal patients – perhaps NASA should redirect (rather than nudge to miss the Earth) a large asteroid to put us out of our collective misery. Much like a terminal diagnosis to use the right to die laws in some states, such a move would save all of us from the coming hell of the effects of a slow prolonged death from climate change. I’m more serious than kidding.

  3. We quite desperately need whistleblowers – the govt. lies to us endlessly. Don’t forget Reality Winner.
    And what’s with the unfilled IG positions? Does Congress have any authority over these?

  4. Thank you for calling attention to the fact that the system for reporting by whistleblowers has intentionally been rendered ineffective due to the de facto policy of “our” government of routinely lying about its acts and intentions, particularly with regard to the wholly illegal wars of aggression we now rightly call the “forever wars”. However, it is regretful that your article implies that Adam Schiff is a crusader for truth. The fact that he is, in fact, a major participant in the rampant dishonestly which pervades our government is readily understood by observing that he placed into the Congressional Record a torrent of lies which have come to be known as the Russiagate scandal. At the time he did that, he knew that their contents were false. I am grateful that you named some names of the liars who have have lied to us about critical matters. There are, of course, many others, too many to name in one article. One name which should, I think, always be on the list is the infamous liar, James Clapper. Mr. Schiff’s name also belongs on the list. The de facto immunity extended to these liars by our corrupt electoral/political system empowers and emboldens them to lie as a matter of routine policy. As you point out, the MSM is always there to provide coverups as needed. For example, when the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s illegal use of a private server for highly sensitive and classified information was revealed, not one MSM writer or reporter pointed out that one very important reason for doing so was to defeat the public’s right to utilize the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information concerning governmental operations. That is a major crime which should have resulted in a furor, hearings, and, if the rule of law were followed, indictments. None of that happened due to the fact that the MSM did its job of providing protection for the criminals and keeping the people in the dark. Mission Accomplished, as a former President might say.

  5. A retrospective on self-congratulatory pride.
    The former CIA asset, and now looking through the revolving door raconteur – teller of tales, Melvin Goodman (MG) tells us it is the “failure of the system, particularly the failure of the oversight system” and has nothing to do with those ‘reasonables’ who, unquestioningly helped create the foundational system itself.
    Of course, in the twenty years he served the CIA objectives, he always knew on which side his bread was buttered and never so much as stepped out of line. Now that he’s comfortably retired, he’s outspoken in rectitude against other lesser mortals.
    For how many years have elected Congress persons covered up American war crimes? All the perpetrators are the innocents, while all those attempting to inform us – the public, are the traitorous guilty. Example par excellence, Julian Assange, yet not a peep from MG to say otherwise about this exemplary human being.
    Anyone on the inside, who only speaks out, after the deeds are done, is definitely NOT a whistleblower. S/He is dirt.
    You would know first-hand (MG) – being a reasonable consummate practitioner of the better part of valor; why there are so few whistleblowers!
    George Bernard Shaw is correct on this one.
    Reasonable men adapt themselves to their careers, while unreasonable men persist in trying to adapt the world to be a better place for everyone.
    The unreasonable man tells us what the future might possibly become, while the reasonable man is constantly telling us, in retrospective alone, how others ought to have conducted themselves going forward, in order to have avoided the catastrophes now facing humanity.
    That’s always been the task of selfless investigative journalists: to keep the public abreast of what its government is doing, in its name – licit and illicit.
    With hypocrites and liars like Adam Schiff filling the seats of Congress; without unreasonably upstanding people, such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and last but certainly not least, one of the runner forerunner whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg, the totalitarian hideousness of the American regime, under which we now live, would be wholly unknown to us, the gullible. And this is why whistleblowers are much more than a prickly thorn in the side.
    And there we were, apparently mistaken all these years, thinking that Congress itself is an agency of all of the people, rather than the self-serving agency of the owner managers of the imperial corporate state.

  6. Is it news that they’ve been lying to us for several decades or more? Or am I an unusual and therefore unwanted, person who has read about this before. Hell, I grew up with it and slayings of leaders who would have headed our country into a more friendly future. They identified and explained some things wrong with our world, like Gary Webb, and were assassinated for doing so. The sooner this all goes to hell where it belongs, the better. In meantime, people ought to gain control of their local food sources, in conjunction with local agriculture caring for the community that surrounds them in very real ways. Air, water, soil, and community are a unit and need to be respected from the bottom up.

  7. That there are so few whistleblowers points to the success of the system, particularly its oversight bureaucracy. How many troubled consciences, among all those who have made their peace with legally organized crime and corruption, are going to entrust themselves to the protection of the foxes guarding the henhouse?

    G.B. Shaw, a very creepy eugenicist, also spoke of the art of government as the organization of idolatry. That disenfranchised and disempowered citizenry still look to the U$ Constitution as some sort of safeguard for rights in these latter days of “inverted totalitarianism” (Sheldon Wolin) attests to the continuing effectiveness of an empire of deceit as old as founding fathers getting away with a coup d’etat.

    We’re all now a long, long way from the good old days when ruling class conspiracists had to lock themselves behind closed doors in Philadelphia to pull off their plots for control of the body politic. The art of government has become an elaborately coordinated science in which, for example, former (?) agents of the state serve the system at institutions of higher (l)earning directly involved in the medical-military industrial complex, publishing policy proposals to ‘protect’ whistleblowers without a word to say about the MMIC’s coup currently underway to make not only the Constitution but our very humanity once and for all obsolete.

    1. Full credit and respect. You are the first (that I’ve seen) to put healthcare and its team members in the system as a full and knowing participants.
      Everyone gets sick or injured. The denial of treatment is a very effective disciplinary tool.

  8. Seems like whistle blowers have not been treated well since Jeremiah. What can we really expect when our governmental system has been bought and sold and much of America continues to follow their favorite hierarchical liar?

    Do we ride this run away juggernaut until it crashes or do we jump off? The least we could do is buy a duck call and go down to any republican or democratic rally a blow it.- show both sides that we are tired of trash rhetoric They obviously cannot be trusted and in turn we may “get our own ducks in a row”.

  9. from Michel Foucault : Wrong-doing, Truth-telling”
    All his works and lectures are available on Open Archive.

    In a work on the moral treatment of madness published in 1840, a French psychiatrist by the name of Leuret explained the method he used to treat one of his patients. Treated and cured, he insisted. Mr. A. suffered from delirium of persecution and hallucinations.
    One morning Leuret led him to the lavatory and stood him under a shower. A lengthy exchange began, which I will summarize. The doctor asked the patient to recount in detail his delirium.

    Doctor Leuret: “There is not one word of truth in all of this. What you are saying is sheer madness, and it is because you are mad that we are keeping you at Bicêtre.”

    The patient: “I don’t think I’m mad. I know what I saw and heard.”

    The doctor: “If you want me to be happy with you, you must obey, because everything I am asking of you is reasonable. Will you promise never to think of your delusions and never to speak of them again?

    The patient promised, with some hesitation.

    Doctor Leuret: “Up to now, you have been unable to keep your word. I cannot count on your promises. So, you will receive a shower until you avow that everything you have said is pure madness.”

    The ice-cold shower fell upon his head. The patient admitted that his imaginings were nothing more than madness and that he would make an effort. But he added: I am admitting it “because I am forced to.”

    Another ice-cold shower.

    “Yes sir, everything I told you was sheer madness.”

    “You were mad then?” asked the doctor.

    The patient hesitated: “I don’t think so.”

    A third freezing shower.

    “Were you mad?”

    The patient: “Is it madness to see and hear?”


    So the patient finally stated: “There were no women who insulted me, and no men who persecuted me. All of it is madness.”

    Foucault: I will not continue. As you may imagine, by dint of applying shower after shower and through one avowal after another, the patient was finally cured. Since he had recognized that he was mad, he could no longer be so.
    _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    “If you want me to be happy with you, you must obey…”

    I see this as perhaps beyond Orwellian, and for that matter, the absurd.
    And this is our state. Doctor Leuret is our State… except the State does not stop at cold showers. As Doctor Leuret takes a step, the State goes to Mars. Its powers, especially in our time, enhanced by technology, are unimaginable, and essentially unlimited. The mere availability of a capability guarantees its application. In other words, if they have the tools to do it, if they are able to do it, they will. They do. I know.
    Constitutionality, legality, reason – damned plain old common sense, symmetry, restraint, humanity, morality and all the rest are inoperative, excluded. It’s a free-for-all (well, free-for-them).

    The experiences of Daniel Hale and Steven Donziger (related on this site), terrible as they are, are not the worst the State can do. These cases are public, the persons are names. The State walks a line between its wrath and its all-important image.
    What It does to targeted nobodies busts credulity.

    There are so few whistleblowers because whistleblowers get beaten, methodically and relentlessly, unto capitulation. Or death.

    As I live and breathe.

  10. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? “– Juvenal

    Inspector Generals have always been a disaster (too close to their division, which they protect more than expose, yet always out of the loop, so when they finally find out, it is common knowledge.) Ronald Reagan terminated 16 inspectors general when he entered into office in 1981.
    A good explanation from this 2014 article: “At the time of this writing, there remain nine Inspector General vacancies across the federal government, three of which have been vacant for two or more years.”:

  11. if whistle blowers were rewarded…if competency was rewarded…if accountability existed…there are nearly no protections for those that expose wrong-doing: they are labelled subversives, conspiracy theorists, dissidents

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