A Timeline of U.S. Whistleblowing

Whistleblowers are individuals who come forward to disclose critical information about wrongdoings and frauds. It was in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln enacted the False Claims Act. Under this Act, whistleblowers may receive rewards for exposing wrongdoings in the form of a percentage of the total sum recovered through their efforts. In 2006, a new whistleblower law was enacted to enable individuals to expose tax frauds including underpayments and other violations of the internal revenue law. The False Claims Act applies to whistleblowers reporting on the illicit use of federal funds in areas like Medicare fraud, government contractor fraud and environmental fraud. Here is a timeline of the most influential whistleblowers in US history.

1777 – Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven

America’s first whistleblowers. In 1777, shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, naval officers Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, part of a small group of men who had witnessed their commanding officer torture British prisoners of war, reported their leader for his actions.

But, in common with modern whistleblowers, for reporting the misconduct of the Navy’s highest officer, Shaw and Marven were both dismissed from the Navy. The commanding officer also filed a criminal libel suit against the two men that led to them being placed in jail awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit. Shaw and Marven asked Congress for help, explaining that they had been arrested for doing what they believed to be their duty.
Appalled, the Continental Congress then enacted in 1778 the nation’s first whistleblower protection law by unanimous consent, authorized money to defend the two men and ordered that Hopkins be fired. Shaw and Marven won the lawsuit.

1968 – A. Ernest Fitzgerald

The “godfather of the defense movement” is what some people call A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a long-time government employee and government whistleblower. In 1968, Fitzgerald reported a $2.3 billion cost overrun involving the Lockheed C-5 transport aircraft. His testimony before Congress in 1968 and 1969 about the problems in defense contracting resulted in the renegotiation of the Air Force’s contract with Lockheed Corp. and saved the government $273 million.

Fitzgerald was also instrumental in the passage of the law which later lead to the landmark Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, a U.S. federal law that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct.

1969 – Ron Ridenhour

Ronald Ridenhour revealed the Mai Lai village massacre during the Vietnam War.
Ridenhour heard about an American Infantry Division that massacred a group of Vietnamese civilians. He wrote President Richard Nixon, the Defense Secretary, and members of Congress detailing that on March 16, 1968, a company of the 23rd Infantry Division killed about 175 to 400 Vietnamese civilians.

The letters sparked an Army investigation that led to indictments, public disclosure of the massacre, and the leader’s conviction.
Ridenhour went on to be an investigative journalist.

1971 – Frank Serpico

Frank Serpico blew the whistle on police corruption in NYC in the late 1960s and 1970s. His testimony in 1971 was the centerpiece of hearings that sparked the biggest shakeup in the history of the NYC police department.

Serpico, the first NYC police officer to testify about widespread corruption, presented evidence about the taking of bribes estimated to be in the millions of dollars by some of the members of Gotham’s law enforcement community. After reports to City Hall were ignored, Serpico and another police officer, David Durk, went to The New York Times where a front-page story led to the creation of the Knapp Commission to investigate police corruption.

Serpico retired from the force on a medical disability in 1972.

1971 – Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg is a military analyst who in 1971 gave what came to be known as the “The Pentagon Papers” to several newspapers.
The Pentagon Papers was is top secret Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making regarding the Vietnam War. The study revealed that, even though the strategies used in the war were believed to be unwinnable, the war was escalated.

Ellsberg first gave the papers to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but when nothing happened, he released the papers to several newspapers in 1971.

Charges brought against Ellsberg under the Espionage Act of 1917 were dismissed in 1973 because of governmental misconduct and illegal evidence gathering.

1972 – Perry Fellwock

Many years ago, the National Security Agency was one of the most secret agencies in existence. Perry Fellwock is a former NSA analyst who revealed the existence of the agency and its worldwide covert surveillance network in a magazine interview, using the pseudonym Winslow Peck, in 1971.
Working from an unmarked headquarters and with a budget larger than that of the CIA, the NSA played a key role in nearly every major geopolitical and military event of the Cold War, with almost no public scrutiny.

Fellwock was motivated by Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers.

1973 – Mark Felt

FBI Associate Director Mark Felt provided critical information to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal under the name “Deep Throat.”

In 1972, five men (who were found to be Republican operatives) in business suits were arrested inside the Democrats’ national headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, a hotel and office building in Washington D.C. Their pockets were stuffed with $100 bills and eavesdropping and photographic equipment. The scandal and attempted coverup by President Nixon led to his resignation in 1974.

1972 – Peter Buxtun

Peter Buxtun is the whistleblower whose actions led to the ending of the infamous experiment – the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” — by government doctors to study the progression of the venereal disease in African-American men.

Buxtun, a former employee of the United States Public Health Service, was shocked to discover that, as part of a long-term study, PHS, had told about 400 Black men with syphilis that they had “bad blood.” When funding was cut, the study deliberately went forward without therapy for decades even when penicillin was found to be an effective treatment.

In 1972, Buxtun leaked information on the Tuskegee experiment to a Washington Star reporter. The story became front-page news and lead to Congressional hearings.

1974 – Karen Silkwood

Karen Silkwood was a lab analyst and union activist at an Oklahoma nuclear facility. She became concerned about health and safety issues at the plant. In 1974, Silkwood testified before the Atomic Energy Commission about her concerns.

On several occasions, Silkwood discovered that her apartment was contaminated with high levels of plutonium. The highest concentration was in her bathroom and in a sandwich in her refrigerator.

Silkwood died in a mysterious car accident in November 1974 while on the way to meet a New York Times reporter and an official of her union’s national office.

1977 – Frank Snepp

Frank Snepp is a journalist and former CIA chief analyst of America’s strategy during the Vietnam war whose 1977 book was one of the first revelations of the inner workings, secrets and failures of an American security agency.

Snepp resigned from the agency upset at the agency’s refusal to acknowledge mistakes made in its Vietnam strategy, including the pull-out of American forces during the fall of Saigon. Snepp wrote a memoir of the event, Decent Interval, published in 1977 without prior approval from the CIA Publications Review Board.

The whistleblowing book caused quite a stir, generating front page coverage in The New York Times. But, the CIA took a dim view of the book and successfully sued Snepp for violating a clause in his employment contract requiring approval of books prior to publication.

1984 – John M. Gravitt

John M. Gravitt, who worked as a foreman for GE in the 1980’s, reported that his superiors were billing the government for work done on the B-1 Bomber when the time was actually spent on other GE projects. Gravitt was fired shortly after making his complaint and told to sue GE under the False Claim Act of 1863, the first suit of it’s kind in 40 years. The suit was settled in 1989 for an undisclosed amount, but was reportedly more $3.5 million. Gravitt’s use of the False Claim Act led to federal legislation that made it easier for employees to file claims under the False Claim Act.

1995 – Mark Whitacre

Mark Whitacre, a former Archer Daniels Midland Co. executive, blew the whistle on the largest price-fixing scandal in the United States.
In 1992, as part of an investigation into corporate espionage and sabotage initiated by the company, an agricultural-commodities processing powerhouse, Whitacre told an FBI agent that he and other ADM executives were involved in an illegal, multinational price-fixing scheme. Whitacre agreed to act as an inside informant for the FBI and helped build a case against the company. Whitacre “wore a wire” and worked with FBI agents to collect information and record conversations with both ADM executives and its competitors.

In 1996, ADM paid a $100 million fine after pleading guilty to fixing the price of lysine, an additive used in animal feed, and citric acid, a food additive.

1996 – Linda Tripp

Linda Tripp is a former government worker who secretly recorded her phone conversations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky where the intern recanted her intimate physical contact with President Bill Clinton. Lewinsky’s allegations of a relationship with the president caused a scandal in the mid-1990s and led to the Democratic president’s impeachment.

Tripp had become a close friend to Lewinsky when they both worked at the Pentagon in the public affairs office. Tripp, who has said she acted on the advice of a literary agent, began to secretly record the phone conversations with the much younger girl.

In January 1998, Tripp revealed the recordings to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who was leading the Clinton Whitewater investigation, in exchange for immunity from prosecution for illegal wiretapping.

1996 – Jeffrey Wigand

Jeffrey Wigand is the former head of research and development at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., a company that manufactured cigarettes and snuff.

Wigand became nationally known as a whistleblower in February 1996, when he appeared on the CBS news program “60 Minutes” and said that higher-ups at Brown & Williamson had knowingly approved additives to their cigarettes that were known to cause cancer and to be addictive.

2001 – Sherron Watkins

Watkins was an executive at Enron Corporation, a Houston, TX energy trading company. In 2001, she sent a memo to the CEO detailing accounting loopholes and shell corporations valued at millions of dollars but whose only asset was declining shares of Enron stock.
Enron filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and several of Enron’s executives went to jail.

The scandal led to the dissolution of one of the largest audit and accountancy partnerships in the world. In 2002, Arthur Anderson surrendered its licenses to practice as Certified Public Accountants after being found guilty of criminal charges relating to the auditing.

2002 – Cynthia Cooper

In 2002, Cynthia Cooper, the Vice President of Internal Audit at Worldcom, now known as MCI, carried on a secret investigation, after discovering some suspicious entries in the company’s books, that uncovered about $3.8 billion in corporate fraud.

The telecommunications company was the second-largest long-distance phone company in the country until the accounting scandal led to the company filing for bankruptcy protection.

Cooper’s revelations also lead to the imprisonment of five of Worldcom’s executives, including its chief executive officer.
For her role in discovering the billion-dollar fraud, the financial whistleblower was one of three people named as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2002. Whistleblowers Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins also achieved that same honor in 2002.

2002 – Coleen Rowley

The FBI Special Agent revealed the FBI’s D.C. headquarters’ failure to “connect the dots” when presented with information about Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan flight student arrested on a visa overstay. Moussaoui was later indicted as a co-conspirator for 9/11.

Rowley wrote to then FBI director Robert Mueller that Moussaoui’s Al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist connections had been discovered about 30 days before 9/11.

Rowley’s 2002 testimony helped begin the FBI reorganization with emphasis on information sharing with other intelligence agencies and expansion of personnel with counterterrorism and language skills.

2002 – William Binney

In 2002, William Binney, a 30-year veteran with the National Security Agency, along with two other men, asked the Defense Department’s Inspector General to investigate an electronic data gathering program, Trailblazer, for being a waste of taxpayer money. The investigation later concluded that Trailblazer was a billion-dollar failure.

Binney was also critical of the agency, saying that the NSA used the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 as a justification to start indiscriminate data collection, actions that he views as violating the U.S. Constitution.

2004 – Joe Darby

Darby is a former U.S. Army reservist who revealed the sexual and physical abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Gharib Prison in Baghdad.
In 2004, Darby provided two CDs of photographs to the Army’s criminal investigation division. He placed an anonymous note and the CDs under his supervisor’s door and describe some of his unit’s members abusing the detainees.

The men that had guarded the prison were criminally charged, while others were discharged from duty and convicted. The Iraq prison commander was demoted.

2006 – Thomas Drake

Thomas Drake blew the whistle on an information gathering program selected by a government intelligence agency that was later declared by a government watchdog to be a billion-dollar failure.

The former senior executive at the National Security Agency criticized the selection of a tool to collect intelligence from the Internet, the Trailblazer Project, over another program, ThinThread, that cost less and, in Drake’s opinion, didn’t violate American consumers’ privacy.
Drake started talking to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2006 when his attempts to use the process for government employees to report questionable activities did not produce any results.

In April 2010 the government brought several charges against Drake, but pleaded guilty to a single charge of exceeding the authorized use of a government computer.

2008 – Harry Markopolos

No One Would Listen is Markopolos’s book about his attempts to blow the whistle on billion-dollar wealth management adviser Bernard L. Madoff.
Markopolos realized Madoff’s system couldn’t have worked as claimed after he analyzed the reports about the financial gains Madoff obtained for his clients.

In 2000, 2001, and 2005, he went to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to notify them, but was ignored.
Madoff was uncovered in 2008 when his sons contacted the FBI. In 2009, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison.

2009 – Bradley Birkenfeld

Birkenfeld enabled the government to snare tax evaders and led to the erosion of the Swiss banking system’s client secrecy.
In 2005, Birkenfield learned that his employer’s dealings with its American clients violated an agreement between UBS and the IRS. The Swiss banking system was known as a tax haven for offshore assets.

Birkenfield then told the Department of Justice. In 2009, UBS was fined $780 million and was ordered to release information on American tax evaders. In 2012, Birkenfeld received $104 million from the IRS Whistleblower Office.

2012 – Joshua Harman

Harman is the whistleblower in a 2012 lawsuit against Trinity Industries, Inc, manufacturer highway guardrails. In 2012, Harman, a manufacturer of a rival guardrail system, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the government under the federal False Claims Act against Trinity over the ET-Plus guardrail, a redesigned guardrail that Trinity started producing in 2005. Harman investigated hundreds of guardrail accidents and says he documented over 40 deaths and 100 injuries involving the redesigned system. Harman said Trinity made several changes to the ET-Plus without notifying the Federal Highway Administration.

In 2015, a Texas federal judge fined Trinity $663 million for defrauding the government. Harman was awarded $199 million. However, in September 2017, the decision against Trinity was reversed on appeal.

2013 – Chelsea Manning

Chelsea Manning U.S. Army soldier who passed to Wikileaks in 2010 thousands of pages of military-related documents.
The disclosures included videos of a July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike and a 2009 airstrike in Afghanistan and U.S. diplomatic cable and Army reports that came to be known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary. In news reports, Manning said she released the documents “to show the true cost of war.”

The material was published by WikiLeaks and its media partners – The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — between April 2010 and April 2011. Publication of the leaked material attracted worldwide coverage.

Manning was court-martial in July 2013 and ordered to serve 35 years; but, in January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted all but four months of her remaining sentence.

2013 – Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, a computer professional, created the biggest intelligence leak in the National Security Agency’s history in 2013 when he released classified information without authorization.

Snowden’s disclosures revealed a number of global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA and a global alliance of intelligence agencies with the assistance of several telecommunication companies.

Snowden is reported to have said that he couldn’t allow the U.S. government to “destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties.”
Shortly after the release, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed charges against Snowden of two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and theft of government property.

Snowden reportedly lives in Russia after having been granted asylum by the Russian government in 2013.