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Tue Oct 8, 2019, 07:55 PM

Whistleblowers have been speaking up, and suffering the consequences, from the beginning

WASHINGTON — It was 1777. The Revolutionary War was raging, and a small band of officers and seamen in the Continental Navy faced a dangerous dilemma.

Their commodore was one of the most powerful men in colonial America. But his subordinates had seen him engage in “barbarous” mistreatment — torture, in their eyes — of captured British sailors.

Eleven years before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the 10 worried sailors became the new republic’s first whistleblowers, reporting what they had witnessed to the Continental Congress — and getting legal protection to shield them from retribution.

“Whistleblowing is really in America’s DNA — it’s as American as apple pie,” said Allison Stanger, a political scientist at Middlebury College whose book on the subject was published the same day last month that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, spurred by a whistleblower’s complaint, announced the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

The lonely individual speaking truth to power is an enduring American archetype. Whistleblowing — when an “insider” in government or a private company or organization draws attention to illegal or unethical activity — is codified in law, enshrined in history, immortalized in Hollywood movies and popular culture.


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