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Whistleblowing, and How to Get More of It

By Karen Kwiatkowski

Karen Kwiatkowski

To my way of thinking, there are two well-known Generals in our 20th century history who had something important to say about whistleblowing.   The second one is Dwight D. Eisenhower who helped coin the language we use to describe the massive interoperable complex of the federal military, our public educational institutions, our corporate manufacturers of a wide variety of goods and services, and the United States Congress.  It’s mentioned in the title of this conference, and we believe it to be about 50 years old.

But the first General I think of when I think of truth telling and whistleblowing is General Smedley Butler who wrote in the early 1930’s that “War is a Racket.”  Many of you here may have heard of Smedley Butler, and many of you may have read his short essay that described how the federal military in the late 1800s and early 1900s, at the direction of Presidents and Congressmen, moved globally to support the interests of American corporations, banking establishments, and even that of certain politically important families of the day.   It was called war, sometimes occupation, and at times, it was publicly accepted as imperialism, the strange imperialism of a Republic, a shining city on the hill seeking to share its vision of liberty and self-government at the point of a gun. 

Butler starts out his famous essay by noting that

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small "inside" group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

It has always been so, and it has never mattered if the warring entities were republics or democracies, kingdoms or dictatorships.   

Smedley Butler was a whistleblower of sorts – and yet it is important to remember that he had served the U.S. Marines for 33 years, reaching the rank of Major General, retiring, and then entered into national politics, sucking hind teat in a Pennsylvania Senate Republican Primary race, a race he lost against a former Republican Secretary of Labor and eugenicist. 

Certainly, Butler’s honest reflection of the reality of his own service led him to the conclusions he is known for – and indeed, for most people today – we ONLY know of Smedley Butler because he wrote War is a Racket.  In a sense, all of his work for the military machine of his day is largely forgotten or irrelevant today.  But his condemnation of political war – and his understanding that all war is political – lives on and inspires us.

It is also important to recognize that General Eisenhower did not write his famous words urging an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry … so that liberty and security may prosper together” as a serving soldier. Nor did he write these words as a campaign speech. He did not speak those words during his Presidency.    He warned us and urged us to be alert and knowledgeable only as he was stepping down from eight years in office, ready to hand over the leadership of the country to a young President at the apogee of the Cold War, amidst global worry about war, about the false reported strength and skill of the Soviet Union, and a heavily contested presidential election.  

These two famous men, in different ways, are whistleblowers, and they urged us to attempt to truly know what was actually being done in our name on battlefields around the planet, and to know who really stood to benefit from these wars themselves, and for the constant preparation for war.   Both understood the “racket” because they worked for that racket, and both had been keys parts of its health and vitality.  Smedley Butler and Dwight Eisenhower were the guardians of its secrets for decades.

These two are role models for all whistleblowers – men we honor today for telling the truth, shining a light on the future, even as we may certainly criticize them for not doing enough to secure the rule of law, to uphold the Constitution, and even turn the ship of state around.   

These two gentlemen told us that the modern United States had an institutional orientation towards war as a mission, not of defense, but simply as a very important  mission of an increasingly corporate state.  They could speak publicly on this topic when they did only because both had become, no longer political actors, but rather, political afterthoughts.  They were, to paraphrase Emma Goldman’s famous quip, allowed to speak because it wouldn’t, and couldn’t change anything. 

Our modern whistleblowers also come from deep within the corporate state, from the day to day workings of the executive departments of defense, homeland security and intelligence, and from inside the interrelated offices of congressmen and the front offices, boardrooms, factories and laboratories of major defense, security, and even pharmaceutical industries.  They are either anonymous – in order to keep their jobs but through anonymity they lose credibility, or else they are publically recognized as witnesses and truthtellers, ready to be marginalized by state and political media, and ultimately fired from their positions.

There is a pattern here.  It’s not new, and it is something that we the people of this country need to recognize.   Those who tell the truth about the waste, fraud, misdeeds, and agendas of the political military industrial complex are enemies of the state.   They are not welcomed by the state as part of some effort to clean up the states act, or to be utilized by the state to help the taxpayer understand what it is we pay for and why it is important.  Instead, truthtellers, men and women of honor, witnesses and whistleblowers are instantly, without prevarication, enemies of the state.

The more famous stories we do know.  Daniel Ellsberg was harassed and attacked, caricatured by the state as a criminal, not a hero.   The many witnesses against the U.S. military regarding Agent Orange, and years later, the vaccinations and experimental drugs that are part and parcel of what would become known as Gulf War Syndrome, which today has killed more U.S. citizens than the Vietnam War, all of these men and women were treated as enemies of the state.    Those who would tell the truth about the propaganda, and original intent, on the way to the wars in and continuing occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, are all made to be enemies of the state.  Think about Bunny Greenhouse observing in pre-Iraq invasion contracting, and Sibel Edmonds in the months before 9-11.   Fired, stifled, harassed, treated badly by our own government for simply telling the truth.  And those who would bear witness to mistreatment and unlawful acts of war and interrogation by the United States here and around the world, are, you guessed it, enemies of the American state.

When I started thinking about this talk today, I wanted to see if there were things we can do to create those alert and knowledgeable citizens that Ike advocated we become.  Can we actually raise up aware, thoughtful, honest and courageous people?  If we did that, why would those people ever wish to work for a federal state engaged in the prosecution of non-defensive war?  And, if those people don’t get inside the bureaucratic state, or work inside the military industrial establishment, how credible would they be as whistleblowers, should it come to that?

Clearly, there are inconsistencies here.  Wise small-R republicans of all political persuasions, devout Christians, and our most alert and knowledgeable citizens may not wish to serve the machine of state.  They might be more interested in liberty and productivity, in peace and prosperity, than the racket of state and corporate military actions, occupations, and regime changes.    Eisenhower glimpsed the problem when he suggested in his farewell speech that we should be able to see “both liberty and security prosper together.”  In fact, as Ben Franklin observed in 1775, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  150 years later, the irreverent editor out of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, explained the more fundamental problem, as follows:

What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace: the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty.

If we want peace in our lives, to live the life of the relative privilege of the trustee in a well-managed penitentiary, then we will indeed sacrifice our dignity, our pride, and our liberty.   We will bite our tongue, close our eyes, and take orders.

For a republic to survive the inevitable pressures of democratic demands for global relevance and proud flag-waving parades, for corporatism, crony capitalism, and empire, we must have the kinds of citizens that are not Mencken’s “common man.”  Our citizens must instead be uncommon men and women. 

What I have learned from my own experience in telling the truth from within the military industrial complex when it is politically unpopular, is that our whistleblowers are indeed uncommon men and women.  For every truth-teller who feels they must speak honestly and openly to preserve their dignity, their pride, and their liberty, there are one thousand, maybe ten thousand, even one hundred thousand men and women who want nothing more than to be able to pay their mortgage, get along with their employer, and keep their head down, and serve their time in the well-managed penitentiary.

So what can we do, those of us who care about rule of law, about the Constitution, the dreams of our forefathers, and the future of our grandchildren in this so-called Republic?

First of all, we must distinguish between the state we have in this country, the federal government in particular, and the government of our imagination.  Too many people believe, as Eisenhower may have, that if we are only alert and informed, it will be enough.  It will not.  

The institutions of the federal government that conduct war in our name are mostly unelected, and the elected parties are indeed enslaved to a system that demonizes them for every peaceful statement that they might make.  If you think I am making this up, then you haven’t watched Ron Paul in the past four years in a presidential primary debate.   In a country where our largest exports are military related, and the bulk of federal discretionary spending is either defensive or offensive in nature, every Congressman is a indentured servant, and the President not much more than a trustee himself.

The varied institutions of the federal government are, as a whole, not friendly to alert and informed citizens.  It isn’t who’s in charge in Washington – it is that Washington D.C. exists today as a terminal cancer on the rest of the country.  To believe otherwise, and to attempt to deal with Washington with anything other than great caution, is folly, in this day and age. 

Secondly, while we can’t change Washington, we can change ourselves, and those people whose lives are touched by ours.  We cannot change their politics, their minds, or their emotional wiring.  But we can encourage all of the people we know, to become more alert and better informed.  Beyond that, we can encourage them not to become angry as they become more alert and better informed, but rather to use that energy of their awakening to live more freely.  To live more bravely, more boldly, and more honestly.    For some of these people, it will mean quitting their jobs in the military industrial political establishment, for others it will mean doing those jobs more enthusiastically, more boldly, more honestly.     Living honestly naturally creates more whistleblowers, more truthtellers, more fearlessness.

Thirdly, we must consider the power of not just a minority, but the amazing power of even just one person.  Our modern history of whistleblowing is a story of a lone voice struggling against the crowd.  It is our shared and common understanding of the power of the devil’s advocate and the single dissenting “Nay.”   The majority in a bureaucracy is often wrong, and the majority in a whole country can indeed be wrong, and in many ways it can be persistently wrong.  When we embrace ideas of democracy as a means of getting better government, we must understand that it isn’t impossible for the entire herd to run off the cliff, or an entire nation to go off the rails, for a Republic to become an empire with the loud blessing of a vast majority of its republican citizens. 

If we can lose our awe of, and our fear of, government, and embrace real concepts of human liberty, we will stop seeking change through either force or through majority rule.  

If we can build up the stores of dignity, personal pride, and a sense of liberty in all of the people around us, it won’t matter if they share our politics or not.  These people will love truth, they will love freedom, and they will be brave as they discover both. 

If we can quietly stand with a minority, and even alone, for the cause of truth, we make a difference.  We can demonstrate to our fellow citizens that standing up for truth is not really that difficult as we have been told, and it’s not always as dangerous as the majority seems to believe it is. 

I often find that I am dismayed at the directions of government in this country, and I am often dismayed at the general directions of the political culture in this country.  But it may be that as the American empire contracts, somewhat reluctantly, we will see a new era of American liberty.  While it won’t be easy to achieve, it is worth giving up our fear and standing strong with a bold and honest minority.

I hope my words here today have helped some of you, and that they inspire more truthtellers, while sharing my gratitude for those who have gone before us.   I have not spoken about my own personal experiences in observing and speaking out about the neoconservatives who beat the war drum in the 80s, the 90s, in 2002 and 2003, and every year since then.    I’d like to answer any questions you may have about that or any other topic now.  Thank you!


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