…High-level whistleblowers know when they come forward that they’re sacrificing their national security clearance, likely their jobs, and quite possibly their freedom. Set aside for a moment what you think about the actions of Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden. Imagine you have a top-level security clearance, and you discover in the course of your work evidence of illegal government activity. Even going through the proper internal channels carries risks, and aren’t likely to change much, anyway. (Thomas Drake, remember, actually went through the proper internal channels to expose government spying — he was prosecuted, anyway. He now works at an Apple store.) Would you risk your career, your lifestyle, your family’s security, and possibly your freedom to expose it? How serious would it need to be for your to consider going public?
It needn’t even be something as dire as national security. I’ve seen and reported on countless law enforcement officers whose careers were cut short (or worse) when they reported wrongdoing by other cops, or more systemic problems within their police agencies.
It seems to me that we’re asking an awful lot of whistleblowers. We’re hoping their sense of right and wrong and devotion to public service will compel them to come forward even if that likely means an end to their career in public service — at best. If we really value whistleblowers, we need to provide them with a bit more incentive. And it needs to come from the private sector. The government certainly isn’t going to reward them for exposing government malfeasance, President Obama’s campaign promises notwithstanding.
A series of prizes for government employees who risk their livelihoods to shed light on government abuse might be one way to provide an incentive for more whistleblowing. It needn’t just be one big prize. Think about a foundation that might give out multiple prizes, at all levels of government.