Reality Winner, the 25-year-old Air Force veteran and NSA contractor charged with mailing classified material to a news outlet, is a classic whistleblower. She hasn’t claimed that mantle, which is understandable given America’s love-hate relationship with whistleblowers. They are alternately celebrated and denounced, depending on who has the microphone and who has the power.
A whistleblower is a current or former employee who reveals what she reasonably believes evidences fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, or a danger to public health and safety. The individual can disclose their concerns to their superiors, Congress, an interest group representative, or the media. Unfortunately, often nothing gets fixed when employees report internally; in fact, they often become the target of any investigation that ensues. This is especially true in the Intelligence Community, where whistleblowers lack strong protection from retaliation. It is easier to shoot the messenger than listen to the message. And the message here is one that has been contested by the President of the United States: that Russia tried – strenuously – to hack our presidential election.
When you can’t shoot the messenger—many whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Thomas Drake had unassailable personal and professional records—those in power will then go after a subsidiary issue: how the leak occurred. In the case of Reality Winner, she has been criticized for mailing the information from her hometown post office in Augusta, Georgia. She has been criticized for using snail-mail, instead of a whistleblower submission system like SecureDrop. (Here it is worth noting that whistleblowers who have blown the whistle over encrypted channels have sometimes faced added charges for obstruction of justice.) She has been criticized for her choice of the media outlet to which to leak.
Her undoing, however, was not because of her choices. Whistleblowers face a panoply of hard choices—whether to complain internally or go public, whether to report anonymously or identify themselves, whether to protect their colleagues from their life-altering decision or put them in the position of being witnesses. There is no right answer. As a general matter, whistleblowers try to call out wrongdoing while sustaining the least damage to themselves, their families, and their colleagues.
The most successful whistleblowers—from Daniel Ellsberg to Edward Snowden—have gone to the media, which brings the benefits of speed, objectivity and investigative resources. When Reality Winner picked this and true path that I and so many other whistleblowers have taken, I doubt she was thinking about how it could land her in jail. I am quite confident she was more concerned about correcting the public and historical record, and giving the truth a fighting chance in a political landscape increasingly overrun with lies.
Many whistleblowers pay a very high price. Chelsea Manning was tortured and imprisoned. Thomas Drake faced life in prison and was left bankrupt and blacklisted. What the government has never managed to take away, however, is their integrity or their voices. And despite their ordeals, the whistleblowers who have suffered the most have often amplified their voices once it was safe to do so. They have continued to advocate for the causes they believe and against the injustices they faced: surveillance reform, ending torture, accountability for war crimes. The least we can do is protect them.