Every journalist who has ever worked with a whistleblower knows these are fraught relationships. The journalist wants the story. The whistleblower wants justice. Or, maybe revenge. Whistleblowers can be heroic, brilliant, paranoid or deceptive. Journalists can push for too hard for information that may not be in the interest of the whistleblower to share. Or, somebody makes a misstep and the whistleblower is exposed.

Still, the stories they produce are sometimes the best way to right a wrong. So, the NWC was happy to produce a list of tips for journalists working with whistleblowers. We also contributed to a compilation put together by the Journalist’s Resource, a Harvard project that aims to connect reporters with reliable sources of information.

For more on this topic, check out the upcoming Double Exposure film festival and symposium. A session on whistleblowing features Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung.

The stakes are rising for whistleblowers across the globe. In the United States, whistleblowers are facing prosecution under the Espionage Act like never before, a charge that carries a potential life sentence for speaking up to expose wrongdoing. Elsewhere, whistleblowers face financial and professional ruin, smear campaigns and–in some countries–targeted assassination. What does this mean for the watchdogs in print and film?
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Rep. Adam Schiff confirmed on ABC’s This Week that the Ukraine call whistleblower will testify before a Congressional committee. Lawmakers plan to ensure the anonymity of the witness,  said the California Democrat, who is chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

Adam Schiff

Now, we are taking all the precautions we can to make sure that …we allow that testimony to go forward in a way to protect the whistleblower’s identity. Because as you can imagine with the president issuing threats like we ought to treat these people who expose my wrongdoing as we used to treat traitors and spies and we used to execute traitors and spies, you can imagine the security concerns here.

Schiff also defended the whistleblower’s integrity and challenged those who say the complaint is based on hearsay.

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Can the Ukraine call whistleblower remain anonymous? And, who is obligated to protect his or her anonymity?

Two pieces this weekend explore those questions.

The Washington Post reports that the effort to identify the whistleblower has become “a fixation” on both social media and conservative news sites.

The looming battle over President Trump’s potential impeachment has sparked an online hunt in the far-right corners of the Web as self-styled Internet sleuths race to identify the anonymous person Trump has likened to a treasonous spy.

Their guesses have been scattershot, conspiratorial and often untethered from reality…


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The past day’s demonization of the intelligence community whistleblower has been harsh. But, not surprising. Whistleblowers always face blowback.

And calls for the whistleblower to come forward suggest a lack of understanding of the need for anonymity.

Tom Mueller is author of the forthcoming booAge of Fraud. He writes in Politico that

A bill strengthening anti-retaliation protections for wildlife whistleblowers made it out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday, marking another move to improve protections for insiders who expose wrongdoing.

The Rescuing Animals with Rewards (RAWR) Act improves the reach and rewards for wildlife whistleblower programs. In addition, it adds anti-retaliation protections to current wildlife whistleblower laws like the Endangered Species Act and Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act.

The National Whistleblower Center, which runs a wildlife whistleblower program, supports the act. “The RAWR Act would be a critical addition to the current legal framework. Whistleblower rewards are proven to work. When offered by the State Department for assistance with law enforcement actions worldwide, and in conjunction with protections against retaliation, the Act will offer a powerful tool in combating illegal wildlife trafficking.”

At the same time, the explosive intelligence community whistleblower case has put the topic on the top of the national agenda.
Here’s some of the latest in this constantly developing story.


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The job of the investigative journalist is to look at how things are supposed to work and report when something is amiss. Sometimes they can follow a paper trail and talk to enough people on the record to get the story. Often, they need an inside source – a whistleblower.

And often the whistleblower needs the press to get the word out. Or they find themselves sucked into a news story, like it or not. A letter from a Congressional committee ends up in a Washington Post story, triggering the cascade of events now playing out. Calls from a reporter shine light on misbehavior of a legendary opera singer, TV host or movie mogul.

The relationship is never simple. The journalists and the whistleblowers don’t always have the same agenda. Depending on who is blowing the whistle and how, it often can hurt a whistleblower’s options if they run to the press first.
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9/25 update: David Colapinto, general counsel of the National Whistleblower Center, spoke about the disputed intelligence community case on NPR and C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

Click here for the NPR audio.  

“If you work in the intelligence community you must bring your concern to the inspector general before you can go to Congress,” he says. But an employee at Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, “can go right to [their] member of Congress or the committee that has jurisdiction over housing,” and report their concerns. “Those are two major differences, as we’re seeing play out,” Colapinto says.

Click here for C-SPAN  video.

(The case) is testing the system set up by Congress…It is a failure if they don’t transmit the complaint to congress. it would be the worst possible outcome to have a whistleblower who did everything right, obeyed the law, did not leak to the media, had the complaint verified, and not have it go where congress said it should go.


Whistleblowers from the intelligence community face a different set of rules than other government insiders. The information they have about wrongdoing may be classified. Protection may be limited. Congress should be involved.

David Colapinto, general counsel of  the National Whistleblower Center, explained this and more to The Washington Post  and The Atlantic. The stories were two in an ongoing flood of reporting about the decision by director of national intelligence to withhold details about the Ukraine whistleblower complaint from Congress.

Colapinto called this move unprecedented and said it could further erode trust in the intelligence community.

 “The system of whistleblowing will fail in the intelligence community if that complaint is not transmitted to Congress,” he said. “To have a whistleblower complaint verified as credible and urgent and not end up where it’s supposed to go would be the worst possible outcome. There would be a crisis in confidence in the intelligence community.”
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A news round-up.

  • Looking at the efficacy of wildlife whistleblower programs

A recent review of wildlife whistleblower reward programs demonstrates “that the current wildlife whistleblower laws are insufficient and are not fully functional,” according to a new report from the National Whistleblower Center. The report, based on a review of public documents and a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office, found “deficiencies in current laws that undermine the potential contributions whistleblowers bring to wildlife law enforcement.”

The report concluded that the “Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Treasury – were neglecting their wildlife whistleblower rewards authorities. We were able to ascertain only two rewards granted by NOAA (within the Commerce Department). In contrast, the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) demonstrated that it operated a modest whistleblower program through the study period (2003-2016)” In that period, the FWS collected nearly $3 million fines and $1.5 in restitution. Problems in the programs could be addressed by the passage of the Wildlife Conservation and Anti-Trafficking Act (H.R.864), according to the report.

  •  Intelligence whistleblower complaint withheld from Congress?

A huge story this week.The Washington Post broke it. From their podcast, entitled Intel official blows a whistle on Trump’s interaction with world leader

A whistleblower report filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community has jolted Congress. It concerns a “promise” made by President Trump to a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter…Post reporters on Thursday broke news of the content of the report, which raises new concerns about the president’s handling of sensitive information and could further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies.


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By Kait Pararas

On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on mass violence, extremism, and digital responsibility. The purpose of the hearing was to examine the proliferation of extremism online and examine the effectiveness of social media companies’ efforts to remove violent content from their platforms. The senators heard from representatives of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the Anti-Defamation League.

Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, repeatedly assured senators about  Facebook’s commitment to remove terror and hate content from its website. In her opening statement, she said: “We don’t allow any individuals or organizations who proclaim a violent mission, advocate for violence, or are engaged in violence to have any presence on Facebook.”

However, a whistleblower working with the National Whistleblower Center filed a petition in January 2019 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) contradicting this. The petition shows that Facebook not only hosts terror and hate content, but it has also auto-generated dozens of pages in the names of Middle East extremist and U.S. white supremacist groups, thus facilitating networking and recruitment.


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Facebook has  “made little progress” in dealing with the problem of auto-generated pages for terror groups, according to reporting from The Associated Press

The story is a follow-up on an April report that concluded the pages “are aiding Middle East extremists and white supremacists in the United States.”

Hear more at today’s congressional hearing