The Razor’s Edge

Published: June 13, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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Jeffrey Wigand, former executive at tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, becomes a celebrity after appearing on 60 Minutes telling how big tobacco lied for decades to millions about the facts of cigarettes and smoking. Hollywood makes a major motion picture about his ethical stand and hires Russell Crowe to play him. Result: Jeff becomes an even bigger celebrity.

Cynthia Cooper, former internal auditor at telecom giant WorldCom, becomes a celebrity after reporting financial wrongdoing that ultimately sends the CEO and CFO to prison. TIME magazine celebrates her and two others — Sharon Watkins and Colleen Rowley — as TIME’S Persons of the Year. Result: Cynthia becomes an even bigger celebrity.

Oh, to be a whistleblower: the honors, book deals, movie deals, fame, fortune…

Whoa, back up the reality bus.

Jeff never got a big book deal, and because of his appearance on 60 Minutes and other news outlets, he became a public figure and never got paid a dime for his story that became the Michael Mann movie, The Insider.

While Cynthia Cooper received a modest contract for a book in which she details her story of honesty vs. loyalty, the primary support for herself and her family comes from the talks she gives to corporations, associations and schools around the country.

Life after whistle blowing notoriety can be as thorny as the events that led up to their celebrity. While some see their actions as selfless integrity, others see them as disloyal betrayers. Worse still, individuals who speak up about wrongdoing not only lose their careers, but many friends and colleagues, as well. And hiring a high-profile whistleblower becomes problematic due to the possible concerns a potential employer may have: “what unethical or illegal act might they be watching for in my organization?”

This brings me to the case of former National Security Agency official Thomas Andrews Drake. During his time at the NSA, Drake came across what he believed to be misconduct.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (How to Be an Honest Whistleblower), “The NSA was planning to move forward with a highly classified communications-interception program called TrailBlazer. Mr. Drake thought it too costly and intrusive and favored an equally secret alternative calledThinThread.”

Drake’s first step was to report to the NSA’s inspector general. After receiving no satisfaction, he turned next to a congressional intelligence committee. Thwarted again, Drake then supplied information to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

“Mr. Drake is a classic whistleblower who faced unjust persecution,” the Journal writes. “Many civil libertarians concur: Mr. Drake was recently awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling by the Nation Institute. The government, on the other hand, saw him as a criminal who violated promises to safeguard secrets.

“The case is especially perplexing because for much of Mr. Drake’s journey, he did exactly the right thing. In going to the NSA’s inspector general and then to Congress, he was following procedures set out in the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which provides a way for employees to bring malefactions to light without compromising security.”

However, in turning to a newspaper reporter, using an alias and demanding complete confidentiality, Drake turned from whistleblower to an anonymous leaker of classified information. In order to avoid prosecution under the Espionage Act, Drake struck a plea bargain. The Journal reports that Drake, “…pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misusing his government computer.”

According to the author of the Journal article, Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, “There was a better alternative…. Mr. Drake had the choice of coming forward publicly and telling the world about the alleged NSA malfeasance. That would have been classic civil disobedience—and exemplary whistleblowing.”

Ethical decision-making is fraught with all kinds of negative consequences making it more difficult than ever for those with integrity to do the right thing.

A verse from the Katha-Upanishad reminds us that “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation (and sometimes integrity) is hard.”



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