Blowing the Whistle: U.S. National Security, Whistleblowing and the Hidden History of Secrecy and Power

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Art, Media and American Studies


In May 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden made headlines across the globe when he leaked details of the US government's global surveillance programs. Snowden was not the first to release classified information in the name of public interest. From the Civil War to the conflicts of the twenty-first century, individuals with knowledge of the secret affairs of the state have exposed U.S. national security capabilities and actions. Although a widely recognised term today, the rich tradition of 'blowing the whistle' remains largely unknown. This project explores the long history of national security whistleblowing in the U.S. and its impact around the world.

The research traces the origins and evolution of whistleblowing from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Organised chronologically and thematically, it will analyse three eras of national security whistleblowing: 1) 1860s to 1960s; 2) the 1970 'boom' period; 3) 1980s to present. Ironically, it was the U.S. government that initiated some of the earliest protections for whistleblowers when the Union passed laws during the Civil War to protect 'relators' who reported fraudulent military contracts to the government. Over the next century, as the United States emerged as a global power, a variety of individuals within the government used public disclosures to challenge America's foreign interventions and expose the state's rapidly growing capacity to keep official secrets, operate covertly, conduct surveillance, and function without adequate oversight. A crucial turning point came in the 1970s as whistleblowing emerged as a popular term and concept. Prominent whistleblowers inside the national security establishment spoke out against a wide range of classified policies and programmes. During the final two decades of the twentieth century and early part of the twenty-first century, as whistleblowing became widespread, the U.S. government passed landmark legislation to protect some whistleblowers while simultaneously silencing others through censorship, travel control, and other measures. Whistleblowers have nonetheless continued to speak out. Snowden was the latest to expose the hidden hand of state power and cultures of secrecy. History suggests he will not be the last.

By adopting a historical lens, the project seeks to move beyond the common characterisation of whistleblowers as either traitors or heroes. These terms encourage a reductive, politicised framework that hinders both scholarship and public debate. The research explores the multiple factors influencing whistleblowers over time, analysing the motives for and limits to releasing national security secrets into the public domain.

In addition to contextualizing the actions of whistleblowers, the project examines how governments and the public have responded to this phenomenon. In particular, the efforts of transnational advocacy groups, lawyers, journalists and global civil society have been instrumental to fostering national security disclosures. Examining the international and transnational dimension to whistleblowing, the research considers the response of foreign governments and the ramifications for their relations with the United States.

The project will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to provide the first comprehensive history of whistleblowing. It will utilise a mixture of archival research and oral histories, but augment historical methodologies with interpretive approaches from legal, sociological, and cultural studies. Furthermore, the international research team will collaborate with groups outside of academia, especially whistleblower advocacy groups, non-governmental organisations, and journalists throughout the grant. A core objective is to engage with actors involved in current debates about whistleblower legislation. Finally, research findings will be shared with the general public in both the U.K. and U.S. through conferences and talks.

Planned Impact

The impact agenda is integrated into the project in a number of ways. Three potential beneficiaries of the research have been identified and will be involved in the project's activities, especially the workshop and conference. The objective is for research to inform public debates about modern-day whistleblowing, as well as encourage more dialogue between scholars and third sector organisations involved in advocacy work.

Firstly, questions of whistleblower sanctions and legislation are considered primarily by advocacy groups, non-government organizations and lawyers. How governments respond to whistleblowers is currently under debate in the United States, U.K., European Union and United Nations. The project looks to inform advocacy work by detailing the long history of whistleblowing, especially earlier examples of legislation and policies to encourage or, as was more often the case, silence and side-line whistleblowers. This historical context is crucial to informing ongoing efforts to reform policies and establish mechanisms and procedures for dealing with whistleblowers while upholding national security.

Secondly, journalists and the media will benefit from the research. The press play a crucial role in reporting on revelations by whistleblowers, often having to adjudicate whether material is in the public or national security interest. By exploring the history of press relations with whistleblowers and the state, the research will be shared with journalists to inform practises today regarding the reporting of sensitive information and treatment of whistleblowers. The project will aim to engage both the traditional press and new media outlets.

Thirdly, the research will aim to influence the general public. By challenging the common mischaracterisation of whistleblowers as traitors or patriots, it seeks to situate present-day debates in a broader historical and political context. Exploring previous episodes of national security revelations on public opinion will foster better informed citizens and public debate. These discussions will feed broader debates about the balance between secrecy and power, national security and civil liberties, in democratic societies. Public lectures will be held in both the U.K. and U.S. that develop these themes, and there will publications in popular magazines and online blogs. The general public will also be included in the end of grant conference in London that will be accessible and open to all.

The conference will bring together academics, NGOs, advocacy groups, lawyers, journalists, and the public. It will explore how the history of whistleblowing is crucial to debating the present and future of a phenomenon that will likely increase as state secrecy continues to expand. The event will be open to the public and an audio recording will subsequently be made freely available on the project website. The research outputs and reports from the project will be shared with third sector groups to aid advocacy efforts. Impact will be recorded through the use of citations, analytics, and feedback forms.


10 25 50