Seven years before the term “whistleblower” would be heard in every newscast, Tom Mueller began the exhaustive research for a biting, angry book that champions those who risk much to call out corruption. It was released just as the House of Representatives launched into impeachment mode after a CIA employee blew the whistle on President Donald Trump’s effort to coerce Ukraine into investigating his political rival Joe Biden.
Mueller and his publisher seem extremely lucky that the stars have lined up so nicely for the release of Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud. But something more than luck is involved: Mueller had recognized the signs of the times that would someday produce a president who so exemplified the need to protect whistleblowers.
Mueller delivers the backstory of how we got here, tracing factors over the past half-century that necessitated what he says is a golden age for whistleblowing. He writes, “We are in the midst of a battle over whistleblowing, part of a larger struggle between personal conscience and group solidarity, between the rights of the individuals to know what their corporations and their government are doing, and the greater power of organizations to keep their secrets.” Mueller is an equal-opportunity muckraker; he prosecutes regardless of political party, and exposes universities and hospitals no less than big business and government. He will bring out your inner populist, whether it’s the right-wing or left-wing version.
The most compelling part of his case is evidence that the institutions created to prevent corrupt dealings have themselves become complicit. This leaves the job to conscience-stricken whistleblowers to step forward; Mueller says he has interviewed some two hundred of them. Often, the supposed watchdogs—the compliance sector of the finance industry, or inspectors general in the federal government—help the empire to strike back at the whistleblower, who is invariably vulnerable.
“The historical arc of this book, and the voices of its whistleblowers, suggest some of the shifts that made a person of Donald Trump’s qualities eligible for the American presidency,” Mueller writes. Particularly apt for this historical moment is what Mueller charges is a politicization of the inspector general system, which is playing an important role in the Trump-Russia-Ukraine saga.
Mueller dramatizes this politicization through the frightening story of Tom Drake, a National Security Agency employee who tried to blow the whistle on a billion-dollar surveillance program that he believed would lead to widespread violations of privacy. He favored a far less costly program that he maintained would have allowed intelligence agencies to stop the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack.
Drake followed procedure and brought his complaint to his agency’s inspector general. In the meantime, news reports appeared about the wasteful government program and, according to Mueller, the inspector general’s office let Justice Department investigators know that Drake was concerned about the program. The Obama administration Justice Department rolled over Drake with its full force, charging him under the Espionage Act and threatening him with life in prison. Ultimately, the prosecution case fell apart; Drake had given some unclassified documents to a reporter, not official secrets.
It’s not a new story; 60 Minutes and the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer have investigated what was done to Drake. But Mueller follows it through to examine the role of the Defense Department inspector general’s office. “The office that was created to serve as a haven for whistleblowers had become a whistleblower trap,” he writes.
This is what I found most chilling in this sprawling book; if the failsafe mechanisms are failing, we’re in trouble. Mueller finds this to be the case even in the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which was founded after Watergate to ensure the agency’s integrity. One of its attorneys, Jesselyn Radack, called attention to illegal interrogation methods used against John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” arrested in 2001. Lindh had retained a lawyer, but was questioned without one.