By David Schleicher and David Gallagher
The recently fired Anthony Scaramucci no doubt knows now the difference between a leak and an on-the-record (and profanity-laced) interview. Whether from within the White House, the intelligence community, or deep inside the bureaucracy, the U.S. government is leaking worse than a toddler in a day-old diaper. Everyone seems to be disclosing, condemning leaks, or leaking to both disclose and condemn the disclosers.
Some see these as patriotic checks on government overreach, bad policy or even criminal acts. Others see them as self-serving political maneuvers, possibly illegal in their own right, and certainly not helpful to an administration struggling to find its footing.
In any case, the decision to leak documents or information to the press is one to be taken with eyes wide open. Combining our backgrounds in representing federal whistleblowers and decades of public relations work, we offer these suggestions for anyone licking their lips in anticipation of blowing the whistle:
- Put on your big kid pants. Whistleblowing is not for the faint-hearted. Consider a client who testified about her agency’s wrongdoing to the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on a panel that also included her agency’s own management officials. Or the one who walked up to his agency’s Inspector General before a hearing and in full view of his bosses introduced himself as a whistleblower and handed over a folder of incriminating materials.
- You are not as invisible as you think. Higher ups frequently can discern who told what. Go ahead and copy them on your disclosures, with return receipt. Otherwise, when they’re accused of retaliation, they’ll deny having had any idea it was you. It’s a management defense that has worked.
- Don’t go it alone. Call us biased because we advise people on career survival and public persuasion. But 10 minutes after walking into the lion cage, you’ll wish you had taken a zookeeper with you. Better they know your plan in advance than have to come in to clean up afterwards.
- Know the rules. Is your disclosure one protected by law (such as a violation of a law, an abuse of authority, or substantial danger to public safety)? Or one specifically prohibited by law (such as leaking classified information to media)? Some may decide their obligations to the constitution and to defend against “all enemies, foreign and domestic,” compel them to disclose things that violate laws that otherwise prohibit disclosure. But don’t stumble into illegality–there are protected channels for disclosing even classified matters, such as to Congress or an Inspector General.
- Go for the gold. If you are leaking documents simply to embarrass your enemies within the building or on the other side of the aisle, don’t waste your time waiting around for a medal. Make sure your whistleblowing is over something your grandchildren can admire you for. We believe that heroes also stay around to face the music. No retiring to Moscow permitted.
It is our theory that no major human disaster has occurred without someone first attempting to call attention to the impending doom. (Remember the INS employee who reported the strange flight school activities of those who would go on to bring down planes on 9/11?)
Whether Daniel Ellsberg and US policy in Vietnam, Karen Silkwood over unsafe nuclear plant practices, Cathy Massiter (MI5 surveillance of political activists), or Laurence do Rego (fraud with Nigeria’s Ecobank), there’s a reason the public holds whistleblowers in high regard: it takes guts and there’s often hell to pay. But done intelligently and for the right reasons, they can change history.
David Schleicher, of the Schleicher Law Firm, PLLC, represents U.S. government employees and splits his time between Waco, D.C., and Houston. David Gallagher is London-based, where he is president, Growth Development, International, for Omnicom Public Relations Group.