A whistleblower is an employee who notices and reports wrongdoing within his company or organization, which could negatively affect the public as a whole. Whistleblowers are protected under the law. This means that whistleblowers should not have to fear retribution, such as the loss of their jobs, simply because they “blew the whistle,” speaking up against unlawful acts. To explore this concept, consider the following whistleblower definition.

Definition of Whistleblower


  1. Someone who informs on another’s wrongdoing, or who publicly discloses corruption.


1965-1970       Americanism

What is a Whistleblower

A whistleblower is an employee who reports on his employer, or someone who reports an organization or agency, for its participation in an illegal or otherwise illicit activity. While such a person is often a current or former employee of the company or organization, it may be someone with a different connection. Similarly, the misconduct being reported may be taking place in the present, may have already happened, or may even be in the early planning stages, not yet carried out. There are two different types of whistleblowing:

  1. Internal whistleblowing – Internal whistleblowing is, as one might expect from its name, the act of reporting misconduct to someone else within the same organization.
  2. External whistleblowing – External whistleblowing, on the other hand, is the reporting of misconduct to someone outside of the organization, such as to law enforcement and/or the media.

Whistleblower Protection Act

The Whistleblower Protection Act, which was enacted in 1989, and strengthened in 2012, specifically protects people who work for the federal government, and inform on illegal or improper activities conducted by the government. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects federal employees from potential retaliation from the government. Examples of whistleblower retaliation may include:

  • Termination of employment
  • Demotion
  • Suspension
  • Threats or harassment
  • Discrimination

There have been several incidents, however, involving famous whistleblowers who have not been protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, as their actions they did not fall within the realms of the Act’s protections. Some of the most famous examples of whistleblowers who were not protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act are Edward Snowden and John Kirakou.

NSA Whistleblower

Perhaps one of the most famous NSA whistleblowers is Edward Snowden. Snowden formerly worked for both Dell (the computer company), and the CIA, before being hired by an NSA contractor in 2013. Shortly after accepting the position, Snowden leaked thousands of classified NSA documents to the media regarding, among other things, surveillance tactics being employed by the U.S. government on its citizens. Snowden became internationally known after articles based on the material he had leaked were published in The Guardian and The Washington Post.

The same month that Snowden leaked the documents, he fled to Russia, as the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against him for stealing governmental property, and for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The Espionage Act of 1917 makes it illegal for someone to communicate information that either supports enemies of the United States or interferes with the duties of the country’s armed forces.

Snowden claims that he leaked the documents, after going over them carefully to ensure that it would be in the public’s best interests for him to publicize each and every one of them. However, despite Snowden’s claims, one of the documents printed by the New York Times was not properly censored and, as a result, intelligence activity was made available to the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Being called everything from a hero to a traitor, Snowden said that past NSA whistleblowers had been “destroyed” for what they had done, and that he wanted to be a symbol of encouragement to other NSA whistleblowers to step forward.

Snowden’s status as a whistleblower is highly controversial, and he was supposedly not protected under the Whistleblower Protection Act for two reasons:

  1. He did not communicate information on the kinds of activities that are protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act, such as fraud, illegal action, or abuse. While some argue that the programs that Snowden discussed were, in fact, illegal and/or unconstitutional, they are actually technically legal under the law.
  2. Snowden did not take up his findings with the NSA inspector general, or with a member of Congress, who had the appropriate security clearance.

IRS Whistleblower

For a complete change of tack, the IRS actually offers money to those who “blow the whistle” on those who owe back taxes. IRS whistleblowers can receive between 15 and 30% of the total amount of taxes and penalties collected against the one who failed to pay. This number applies to any disputed amounts that exceed $2 million, though, if the case concerns an individual, he or she must make over $200,000 per year. If the total amount collected is less than $2 million, or if the individual makes less than $200,000 a year, the IRS whistleblower can only earn up to 15% of the total amount of back taxes collected.

Of course, IRS whistleblowers will only be rewarded if their information is legitimate and solid – the informant should not just be hazarding a guess. The issue must also concern federal taxes, as opposed to problems of a personal nature, or relating to a business relationship.

SEC Whistleblower

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is responsible for enforcing federal laws and regulating the U.S. securities and stock industries, among other things. The SEC has its own department for whistleblower claims called the Office of the Whistleblower.

SEC whistleblowers are encouraged to file claims with the SEC for any incidents they believe are illicit or illegal, and rest assured they can do so anonymously if they prefer. However, should an SEC whistleblower choose to proceed anonymously, he or she must be represented by a lawyer. It’s worth noting that, in certain circumstances, whistleblower tips and complaints may make the tipster eligible to claim an award.

Once an SEC whistleblower submits a claim, it is reviewed and forwarded on to the appropriate department. The claim must include specific and credible details of the unlawful activity, and it must be filed in a timely manner. The SEC notes that potential SEC whistleblowers phone the office frequently, to ask if they should report an act, or update information on a complaint that has already been submitted. The SEC almost always tells these callers to do so, as their submissions may just be the “last piece of the puzzle” in an investigation that is already being conducted.

CIA Whistleblower

John Kiriakou is perhaps the most well-known of the CIA whistleblowers. Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst, and senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was the first government official to confirm that al-Qaeda prisoners were being tortured by waterboarding. In his report, Kiriakou described methods of torture, and named participants, victims, and the location of the incidents.

Kiriakou was indicted on charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, and the Espionage Act; and for making false statements to the CIA’s Publications Review Board. The Intelligence Identities Protection Act makes it a federal crime for someone to intentionally reveal the identity of an Intelligence agent, unless the U.S. has made the relationship known publicly.

Kiriakou pled not guilty to all charges, and was released on bail. However, he plead guilty later on to one count of giving classified information to the media (violation of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act), despite the fact that the reporter he had contacted chose not to publish the name of the operative in the exposé. Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison, making him the second CIA whistleblower to be imprisoned for revealing someone’s CIA cover.

Medicare Fraud Whistleblower

The Medicare program is ripe with fraud, both on the part of patients, and on the part of providers. A Medicare fraud whistleblowers can provide information on suspected fraud by calling 1-800-MEDICARE. It is possible to earn up to $1,000 for reporting those who abuse Medicare by getting undeserved payouts.

In addition to the standard information required by Medicare in order to process the claim, informants must also provide Medicare with a specific reason why they believe Medicare should not have paid the claim. As with any other agency, Medicare will only consider claims made by a Medicare fraud whistleblower if they are specific, and based on solid information. Additionally, a Medicare fraud whistleblower may only receive a payout if the people he is reporting are not already under investigation.

Whistleblower Example in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

In 1966, epidemiologist Peter Buxton stumbled upon what is now known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, while conducting patient interviews for the U.S. Public Health Service. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was a study conducted over a 40-year period (1932-1972), wherein the U.S. Public Health Service studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor African-American male sharecroppers in Alabama.

The study involved 600 men in total, of which 399 had contracted syphilis before becoming involved in the study. The remaining 201 participants did not have the disease. The men who participated in the study chose to do so because they were told that they would be receiving free health care from the government. The study became controversial due to the fact that the participants were never informed that they had syphilis, and none of them were treated with penicillin, even after penicillin had become the standard treatment for the disease.

Proper treatment was deliberately withheld from the participants in order to study the progression of their disease. The participants were also promised funeral benefits so that the government could perform autopsies on their bodies after their deaths, for the purposes of medical research.

Worse still were the after-effects of the study. Only 74 of the 600 men who participated in the study were still alive by the time the study was finally terminated in 1972. Forty wives of those men contracted the disease as well, and 19 children born from unions involving those men were born with congenital syphilis.

Buxton, the very example of a whistleblower, filed two formal complaints with the government before taking his claims to the media four years later. Finally, after the general public was made aware of what was truly going on, the study was terminated, and medical research methods were significantly and permanently changed.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Indictment – A formal accusation issued by a grand jury, which initiates a criminal case.
  • Medicare – A federal health insurance program that pays the claims of those who are aged 65 and older, as well as those who suffer from disabilities or kidney failure.
  • Waterboarding – The act of pouring water over a cloth that is placed over a person’s face to simulate the act of drowning.