10 Whistleblowers and the Horrors They Exposed

Supporters of whistleblower Edward J. Snowden at a New York City rally in June 2013. © Tony Savino/Corbis

Human nature has a nasty tendency to run amok when left to its own devices. That's especially true when people get a taste of power or money -- corrosive and corrupting influences that often lead otherwise good people to make incredibly evil choices.

It's a good thing, then, that there are counterweights to those evils. There are people willing to sneak grimy, dirty classified files and documents from under lock and key and into the disinfecting power of sunlight. They are the whistleblowers.

Whistleblowers have a conflicted history. They're sometimes viewed as sneaky traitors with grudges to settle. Other times, they're lauded as heroes of the best kind, willing to risk their reputations and even their lives to expose terrible wrongdoings.

Sometimes, whistleblowers get blown off. Sometimes they disappear due to mysterious circumstances before they can bring their evidence to light. And sometimes these men and women manage to get the word out, shattering public perceptions, shaming politicians and shuttering corporations for the wrongs they've committed.

It's those successful whistleblowers that leave a permanent mark on our human history. Keep reading and you'll see 10 of the most famous whistleblowers ever to sound the alarm.

A Watershed Moment
Former FBI official Mark Felt arriving at federal court in 1980. © Bettmann/CORBIS

As political scandals go, Watergate represents just how ugly governments can get -- and how determined whistleblowers can bring them down. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration was in the midst of full-blown paranoia, bugging the offices of political opponents, harassing protesters and generally just abusing power on a large scale.

Nixon henchmen were even arrested after they broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters with the intention of bugging phones. Subsequently, Nixon's men attempted a cover-up.

Two intrepid reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, began investigating the story. They found a vital inside source, code-named Deep Throat, who supplied them with leads that helped them track the bungling burglars back to the Oval Office. Eventually, it became clear that Nixon had orchestrated many wrongdoings, and he was eventually forced to resign.

It wasn't until three decades later that Deep Throat -- Mark Felt -- stepped forward. Felt was a high-ranking FBI official who had access to all sorts of documents that helped Woodward and Bernstein piece together and confirm their suspicious about the puzzling scandal. In the end, Felt and the Post reporters played important roles in the unraveling of an American president.

Atomic Protagonist
Karen Silkwood exposed health violations and faulty equipment at the Kerr-McGee fuel fabrication facility. © Mark Peterson/Corbis

In 1972, Karen Silkwood was an employee at the Kerr-McGee fuel fabrication facility in Oklahoma, where she made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She was also leader of the worker's union there, a position that she used to broadcast concerns about health violations, faulty equipment and subsequent poor-quality products, as well as employee radiation exposure.

She gathered documentation that she said supported all of the problems. Then, the worker's union threatened Kerr-McGee with a lawsuit.

At around the same time, Silkwood was following standard safety procedures, testing herself for radiation exposure, when she discovered that her body showed high levels of plutonium contamination. She suspected that someone was intentionally poisoning her to cover up problems at the plant.

The same day that Silkwood planned to meet with a New York Times journalist to discuss the story, she was killed in a suspicious car accident; her body was found in her car at the bottom of a ditch.

Because of the claims, the Department of Energy opened an investigation and ultimately shut down the facility. Although Karen Silkwood lost her life in the process, she brought to light the hazards of a poorly managed nuclear plant and likely saved many lives.

Laboratory Horrors
Ninety-four-year-old Herman Shaw, one of the unknowing patients in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, speaks during ceremonies at the White House in 1997 in which U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized to the survivors and families of the victims of the study. © PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

During the mid-20th century, the United States Public Health Service was doing wonders to advance disease prevention and to promote healthy living. It was also purposely infecting people with a horrific sexually transmitted disease called syphilis.

In 1966, a new health service employee named Peter Buxtun was tasked with investigating venereal diseases. He soon realized that the government was working with the Tuskegee Institute to conduct an experiment in which hundreds of impoverished black men in Alabama were infected with the disease -- while the subjects themselves thought they were receiving free health care.

Buxtun filed a complaint, but he was told that the experiment wasn't yet complete. After being rebuffed a second time, he leaked his story to the press and it immediately became headline news across the country. A congressional hearing was arranged and the experiment was ended, although too late to save hundreds of men and their children from years of suffering.

Let the Caged Bird Sing
This map of White Plains, New York from 1910 shows the Bloomingdale Asylum property -- a large tract of land -- on the left. © Historic Map Works LLC

The public perception and treatment of mental illness has transformed in recent decades. But for many years, the mentally ill were squirreled away in so-called insane asylums, never to be seen again. Within those asylums, awful events sometimes transpired.

In 1872, a reporter named Julius Chambers purposely had himself committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum in New York, with the help of his editors. For 10 days, he witnessed all sorts of abuses heaped onto inmates, some of whom weren't even mentally ill to begin with.

The publication of his stories unveiled filthy conditions, poor food, awful sleeping arrangements and beatings. It resulted in the release of 12 inmates and the termination of some of the asylum's administrative staff. It also sparked changes in lunacy laws, which to that point were ludicrous. For instance, a person could be committed to an asylum with no real evidence of mental illness at all and then detained for months or years at a time.

Ultimate Eco Warrior
Biologist Rachel Carson ushered in a new era of environmental concern with her book "Silent Spring." © Bettmann/CORBIS

In the 1950s, the overuse of agricultural chemicals and fertilizers was commonplace. And the environmental damage they caused was, too.

Rachel Carson was a biologist and environmentalist who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She witnessed first-hand the degradation that happened when humans got carried away with their synthetic pesticides. In her 1962 book "Silent Spring," Carson detailed the deleterious effects of DDT, a pesticide that was initially used for fire ant control.

In her book, Carson produced evidence that DDT was a hazard to human health and to the environment. Perhaps most famously, DDT affected bird populations by causing their eggs to have thinner shells.

In spite of her documentation, industry proponents did their best to deny DDT's poisonous properties. They failed. The book became a best seller, and public backlash eventually prompted the ban on DDT. More profoundly, "Silent Spring" helped spark a new era of environmental concern that persists to this day.

Prior to Fellwock exposing the ECHELON campaign, no one even knew of it. Here, Italian Eurodeputy Roberto Felice Bigliardo protests ECHELON during debates in the European parliament in 2000. © GERARD CERLES/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. National Security Agency has been making worldwide headlines for a while now. But back in the 1970s, precious few people had ever even heard of the NSA. And if they had, they'd no idea just how sprawling this secretive organization had become ... and how the NSA was spying on American citizens.

But in 1971, Perry Fellwock, who was an analyst at the NSA, exposed the public to an agency that had surreptitiously grown so large that its budget exceeded that of the Central Intelligence Agency. It was also conducting some iffy campaigns, such as one called ECHELON, which was a code name for a system that intercepted all sorts of electronic communications, from faxes to phone calls to e-mails and more.

Fellwock went public with this information, and it had a massive ripple effect. The end result was new legislation prohibiting the government from spying on its own people without probable cause. And Fellwock may never have said a word if it hadn't been for our next famous whistleblower.

Five Sides of Lies
In 1977, Daniel Ellsberg gave a speech about the Pentagon Papers to students at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Ellsberg is still involved in anti-secrecy activism. © Paul Liebhardt/Corbis

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War had become a grim stain on the American psyche. Unbeknownst to the public, top-level leaders were secretly expanding the conflict.

Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst who dragged the ugly secrets of the military out into the light through the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was one of a very few people who had access to classified documents about the war. Those documents spelled out, among other things, that the war was likely unwinnable, and that in spite of this, the military was broadening its list of targets and intensifying its bombing campaigns.

Ellsberg leaked copies of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which broke the story. The Nixon administration attempted to bar the media from publishing more of the documents, but the Supreme Court intervened, allowing the media to unveil governmental deceit on a huge scale.

Cancer Stick Cover-up
Jeffrey Wigand told Big Tobacco’s secrets to journalists and turned the industry upside down. © Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post via Getty Images

It wasn't until 1964 that the U.S. Surgeon General finally condemned cigarette smoking as a clear-cut health risk. But all along, the tobacco companies were flagrantly manipulating lawmakers and consumers alike by lying about how addictive and destructive their products were.

Jeffrey Wigand worked for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, and he saw first-hand how the organization misled people about nicotine's addictive nature, as well as the carcinogenic ingredients in smoking products. After disagreeing with other executives about these issues, he was fired from his job, and he eventually told Big Tobacco's secrets to the news show "60 Minutes."

The facts he unveiled were a hammer blow to the industry, and used by the attorneys general of several states to bring a suit against the three biggest tobacco companies. Eventually, they were forced to settle for hundreds of billions of dollars.

The Holocaust Hero
Though Karski’s information about the atrocities he had seen initially fell on deaf ears, his tireless efforts to expose the Nazi agenda opened the world’s eyes to the Holocaust. © STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

As Adolph Hitler and his armies churned across the continents during World War II, they sent captured citizens and soldiers to concentration camps. For many months, the systematic torture and murder taking place in those camps was hidden behind the cloud of war.

Jan Karski fought for the Polish resistance in Warsaw. He saw the Nazi atrocities and set out to expose Hitler's wrongdoings. In 1943 he began meeting with journalists, religious leaders and politicians, supplying details of the extermination of Jews and other groups across Poland. Karski even spoke with U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt.

Sadly, no one believed his claims initially. The next year, though, he published "Story of a Secret State,"which detailed his accounts. Nearly half a million copies sold, spreading the news of the Holocaust far and wide.

The Snowballing NSA
Edward Snowden's outing of the PRISM initiative and the depths of its surveillance caused an immediate outcry around the world. © BOBBY YIP/Reuters/Corbis

Admire him or despise him, Edward Snowden exposed the National Security Agency as more intrusive and more aggressive than anyone suspected. The aftershocks from our No. 1 whistleblower are still happening, and will continue to reverberate for years to come.

Stop us if you've heard this one before.

Snowden was an NSA contractor who leaked information about PRISM (ECHELON, anyone?), a sophisticated electronic surveillance system that launched in 2007. PRISM was initially intended to help analysts capture information about plots against the United States. But Snowden leaked documents showing that the program collected mind-blowing amounts of data and amounted to spying on American citizens.

Snowden's revelations damaged the Obama administration's image at home and abroad. PRISM was roundly condemned by both America's enemies and allies, and the American public and legislators reacted with outrage.

Only history will be able to judge whether Snowden is a patriot or traitor, but like our other whistleblowers, he accomplished an amazing feat -- he exposed tightly held secrets to the wider world. It's up to the rest of us to make the best use of those revelations.


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HowStuffWorks looks at a new study on what percentage of Americans have a family member in jail or prison.

Author's Note: 10 Whistleblowers and the Horrors They Exposed

Growing up, one of the historical figures I admired most was Rachel Carson. Her impact on society's mindset towards the environment was remarkable -- with her insights, we shifted from a culture that insists on bending nature to our will into a more thoughtful and understanding people. Carson was the best kind of whistleblower. She was thorough in documenting her claims and unafraid to present the truth as she saw it. And in the end, she made our world a better place.

Related Articles


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