Five years ago I joined a client as she testified to the House Government Reform Committee on which Rep. Cummings served. Though the client was blowing the whistle about misconduct that occurred at an agency headed by a Democratic appointee, Rep. Cummings did not hesitate to say on the record that it was among the worst things he had heard in his 17 years in Congress. I’d wish for a hundred more Rep. Cummings: unafraid to show their humanity, unafraid to criticize even their own party when it goes astray, unafraid to maintain friendships across party lines. The nation has lost a hero.
by David R. Schleicher
“One of the most alarming things that I’ve heard in being in Congress for 17 years is what you just described.” So said U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings to my whistleblower client as she testified to the House Oversight and Reform Committee, as I sat behind her. Her courage was answered with bipartisan support from the committee. They clearly understood the essential role of internal critics to protecting our democracy. Know it or not, the same holds true for survival of other entities.
In contrast, consider the fate of the intelligence committee whistleblower who followed the law to report internally through the chain of command concerns that President Trump sought to deny U.S. military support to an ally unless he got in exchange help damaging his potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. Soon after the whistleblower’s report was publicly released, Trump suggested at a private event in New York that he missed the days when traitors were executed.
Apparently some have forgotten that Edward Snowden made multiple attempts to make disclosures internally of his concerns before giving up and dumping innumerable national secrets to Wikileaks and the press. Others seem to believe that pulling the cover back on wrongdoing is naughtier than a President trading national security for a bump in the polls.
In my 20+ years of representing federal law enforcement and national security employees, my experience has been that they are deeply loyal to the country, more often than not are people who would prefer to vote Republican if given a reasonable choice, and tend to see the world in terms of right and wrong rather than full of grays. Someone who doesn’t clearly see some things as immoral is less likely to be willing to risk a bullet or worse for the cause. Many of them are folks who wouldn’t mind Snowden meeting his demise, but aren’t especially fond of Trump either.
It should be no surprise these same “deep state” citizens, who have sworn an oath to uphold the constitution against enemies foreign and domestic, cannot abide conduct by someone who puts personal gain above the interests of the country. On the other hand, they also are often people who have families and other things to lose. If they know they’ll face a firing squad for trying to do the right thing, like anyone else they will pause before doing that right thing.
Like the prophets of days of old who were beloved by kings until they brought bad news a little too often or a little too close to the throne, so the modern whistleblowers are ignored at our peril. Whether you are in government, a private company, or a non-profit, that disgruntled employee down the hall who frequently tells you the sky is falling may prove right 10% of the time. Won’t you have wished you listened and considered the grumbles, so that you didn’t miss the one in ten chance at saving your organization?
I think back to my six years of service on a local school board and an angry citizen who was frequently heard during the public comment period to make seemingly wild allegations of wrongdoing by the our staff. Wouldn’t you know it: in one instance his account of a district employee dangerously mistreating a student turned out be entirely accurate. For the sake of that student and others who might have befallen the same fate, I was glad we heard our local prophet out.
Criticism is difficult to take and often delivered by those we’d rather ignore entirely. The whistleblowers are nonetheless essential to protecting organizations when human nature is for those serving nearest the powerful to be motivated to only give them good news. It is the black swan—what is the unknown, unknown to its leaders—that poses the greatest threat to an organization. Whistleblowers are inside enough to see where the ship is missing a nail, yet often outside enough to be willing to yell to the Captain that for want of that nail the ship shall sink.
Next time you are tempted to dismiss the critic as a disgruntled employee of no value, instead try taking on the challenge of finding what may the buried 10% of invaluable information. And when it comes to being a citizen, instead of supporting the execution of the messenger bearing bad news, instead consider expressing appreciation for those brave enough to tell us when we are wrong. Without such people, we risk joining the ranks of those empires and entities of days gone by who seemed one day very strong and upon falling were revealed to have been long ago hollowed out, largely because no one dared say that the emperor had no clothes.
David Schleicher is an attorney who represents federal employees, splitting his time between Waco, Texas and Washington, D.C. He may be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.