In this episode, Jeremi and Zachary speak with Tom Mueller about whistleblowing and its role in our government and society.
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “A Voice Calling in the Desert.”
Tom Mueller is the author of a new book, Crisis of Conscience, on the history of whistleblowing and fraud in the United States. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, National Geographic Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and elsewhere, and have been included in anthologies like Best American Science Writing and Best American Travel Writing. He was educated at Oxford (DPhil, Rhodes Scholar), Harvard (BA, summa cum laude), and Alief Hastings High School in rural east Texas, home of the Fighting Bears.
- Tom MuellerNew York Times Best-Selling Author
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
This is Democracy, a podcast that explores the interracial intergenerational and intersection of unheard voices living in the world’s most influential democracy.
Jeremi Suri 0:19
Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to discuss a topic that is ubiquitous in today’s news, but a topic that also has a very long history and history that’s deeply relevant for us today. That is the history of whistleblowers and how we understand what a whistleblower is and what role whistleblowers have played, should play and hopefully will play in our democracy. We are deeply privileged to have with us the author of one of the best books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. I’ve read a lot of books in the last few weeks one of the best books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. The author is Tom Muller, and he’s written a book called The crisis of conscience. whistleblowing in an age of fraud.
Tom is the author of this book as well as the author of numerous other articles another New York Times best selling book on the history of olive oil. He is a highly regarded writer, journalist and a former Rhodes Scholar as well as a very well educated individual. Tom, it’s very nice to have you on with us. Great to be here. Jeremy. Thank you. Before we turn to our discussion with Tom we have Zachary seen setting poem exactly what’s the title of your poem today?
turn to our discussion with Tom we have Zachary seen setting poem exactly what’s the title of your poem today?
Zachary Suri 1:33
A voice calling in the desert
Jeremi Suri 1:35
Let’s hear it.
Zachary Suri 1:37
of voice calling in the desert, walks Clamantis, and is there too, I have this image of a man in a suit and tie falling to his knees and one of those Mirage shots with enough food. And Lawrence of Arabia has imagined Jordan and screaming out among the hot sand of aloneness with unique sanity. And sometimes it can feel that way for all of us strolling among the sandy trails along the riverbank and the text son, and to me it is a stop sign and one of those endless 95 mile an hour highways in West Texas that shines red and the sun printed in white letters. Nevertheless, to blow the whistle next to a crime scene and hideaway in the crowds of people doesn’t really seem heroic in our time. But at one point or another way of all, we all have to be a voice in the desert. Whether it’s humanity in a war zone, or wacky remembrances pre war New England in a wheelchair and a nursing home. We all call attention to something higher than ourselves. And we all may be here just to pass along some memory, some decision not to stay silent anymore. And it is hard to lead a life of memory when everything is so distressing. It’s It’s as if you would just explode. But sanity is a gift and desert. And Vietnam was greed and Ellsberg was on an airplane with all the facts in a file box. And Watergate was paranoia and felt was truth in a Suburbans parking garage. And the Patriot Act was espionage and Snowden was complicated freedom with its fast drive, and they are unnamed our anonymous screamers still come commuting to work filling their mugs with coffee and creamer in office kitchen somewhere near the capital. But they are history with all its blunt force of reality, crushing it all like a car crash tested into concrete.
Jeremi Suri 3:16
Wow, Zachary, I love the range you have there from Ellsberg to felt to a Snowden. What’s your poem about Zachary?
Zachary Suri 3:23
Well, my poem is really about power of one voice, and how that can bring out so many other powerful voices that have been silent, particularly the power of one same voice in the desert of insane voices, and how it can really lead us closer to the truth.
Tom Mueller 3:43
And aloneness, with unique sanity really struck me because so often there, the whistleblower him or herself is accused of insanity of narcissism and so on. And yet they know or try to hold on to the conviction that they are the ones saying in this crazy group.
Jeremi Suri 4:02
That’s that’s so well, said Tom. And it actually was my first question for you after reading this 500 page, deeply moving history of whistleblowers, how do we differentiate a whistleblower from a celebrity seeking Narcissus?
Tom Mueller 4:19
I guess the facts are critical what facts they bring forward and the impact that they have or they attempt to have, I think, ultimately, motivations. Although it makes a good story, we want to hear the heroic whistleblower prevailing against the evil organization can be a big distraction. What we need to focus on is what detailed information evidence of wrongdoing or potential human harm is being brought forward by this person. And this person can be a thoroughgoing bastard. I mean, they don’t, they aren’t necessarily nice folks at all. We shouldn’t be concerned by that. And we shouldn’t be deflected by those who try to squelch their message by attacking them.
Jeremi Suri 5:07
Right. It’s almost as if, when the whistleblower is focusing on the evidence that makes the whistleblower more credible. If it’s about the personality, sometimes the whistleblower might focus on his or her own personality, then they’re less credible, correct?
Tom Mueller 5:20
Certainly, because it once again, I mean, the point of the whistle blowing exercise, presumably, is to bring forward problems, not talk about themselves and stand up on a soapbox mistrust those who go on and on and on about their background and how much they’ve suffered. And, and those people exist, of course, and in the trade among whistleblower advocates, they’re called the 10 hatter’s, those who have have a major conspiracy theory, or maybe, you know, in good faith, but they just got it wrong. Right. Their facts aren’t good. Those that doesn’t make them evil, but they can they can be a huge distraction and waste of time. And sometimes they are sometimes would be whistleblowers. actually do. You know, cripple there are small agency caused enormous and unnecessary harm to the organization. Right,
Jeremi Suri 6:07
right. Now, one of the most extraordinary things about your book, Tom, is you talk about how far back the history of whistleblowers goes? Where do we really start the story?
Tom Mueller 6:18
Well, I started looking at this fascinating Lincoln era Civil War era law called False Claims Act 1863. Once again, once again, as in history, as in today, defense contractors were robbing the Union Army blind. And Lincoln and several others said, What, right, that’s enough, we need a we need a law that will stop that. And they passed the False Claims Act, which has this magnificent mechanism in it the key Tam mechanism which means which is short for he who brings food on his own behalf and on behalf of the king. Now, that got my attention, because first this Latin, and I’m a medievalist, and second, it goes back to medieval common law and BN. And beyond that to Roman law. It’s a mechanism that allows an individual to become a private attorney general and pursue a case on his own behalf on the UN on behalf of the American people, even if the Department of Justice or the US government is not interested in pursuing it. And that’s a critical forcing mechanism. Because sometimes the US government is too cozy with the with the perps. So that’s one very nice historical in a civil war. Sure, a Blinken, another one is 1778, the Continental Congress, the Congress heard from a Marine who had gone AWOL from his ship to report the No, no less than the Commodore of the Navy, is a cop skins, who had abused according to them, British prisoners had been guilty of dereliction of duty, and in this marine was a voice of 10. Service servicemen who accused the comet or needless to say, a huge risk to themselves. And the Congress did not punish them. In fact, the Congress praise them celebrated them by saying that by passing a law saying it is the right and the duty of all people in this nation to call out the public officials for wrongdoing. So it’s it this is very much deeply ingrained in American history. And I would argue that the that the founders themselves had a lot of whistleblowing in them, I mean, they, they sure they are stuck there, or decided to go against their loyalty to, you know, to their nation to create a new nation. And they their their authority to the divine monarch to higher authorities, like, you know, justice, truth, rights, all those wonderful things.
Jeremi Suri 8:43
But it’s it’s it’s extraordinary time, because generally, when we talk about American governance, we emphasize checks and balances in a very matter, Sony and way. And we see checks and balances institutions, not individuals serving as the vital protections of democracy. That’s, of course, how matters rights about this. You’re making an argument that there’s a tradition about individual wrong calling and individuals coming forward to identify institutional corruption that’s as important, correct.
Tom Mueller 9:11
Yes, that the individual conscience is, I think, a central part of our founding documents that would you know, that that voice, that that curry so eloquently mentioned, will not be drowned out, must not be lost. And, you know, 70 years of social science has told us, you know, post World War Two has told us how dangerous it is, to conscience, to allow a transcendent mission to create a huge emotive force and an enormous Forward, forward momentum that can be lethal. And the individual conscience really is what we need to fall back on. So when I you know, consider all men are created equal, and have certain unalienable rights, I can’t help but hear someone who wants to support an individual voice and an individual can.
Jeremi Suri 9:57
Interesting you make the point about half through the book pages, hundred 99 to 200. That this is a characteristically These are your words, characteristically American phenomenon. But in the next paragraph, you also point out that it brings up deep contradictions, that there’s a deep contradiction in the American soul, between the individualism you just so eloquently described, but also a sense of patriotism, loyalty to institutions, following the rules. How have Americans reconcile this contradiction?
Tom Mueller 10:28
Well, I think it is quintessentially American in the sense that it’s pragmatic, you know, you offer a bounty in some cases, to get people to come forward. And it’s a public private partnership of the kind of Reagan celebrated and many felt, and many, many have celebrated since. However, I mean, I’ve, in my, in the course of my research for this book, I was quite surprised to learn that, as compared with many nations, Sweden, France and others, the likelihood that an average american will go along with the authority statement, whatever that statement may be, about lawbreaking about war fighting and about myself is far greater than then the other citizens in the other nations I mentioned. Once an American joins an institution, they are more likely to go with the program to follow the rules of the institution. So we fancy ourselves these sort of frontier, go it alone, very individualistic people. But in reality, Americans, we need to watch out, we need to question authority, we need to question our group and make sure it’s pointed in the right direction.
Jeremi Suri 11:37
This is the old warning that the great historian Richard Hofstetter had given right, which is then within the American tradition, is a tradition of quite frankly, right partisanship as much as there is a tradition of individualism and we’re certainly seeing that today, I think, correct?
Tom Mueller 11:52
We certainly are Yes, I mean, they are in groups of shrunk down to a tribe. And and you know, everyone else’s a potential enemy is not subhuman
Jeremi Suri 12:04
YY Tom, this is one of the second big arguments, maybe the most radical argument you make Why have we seen more whistleblowing as you document so well, in this book? Why have we seen more of it in the last 10 to 20 years than in the past?
Tom Mueller 12:17
Well, I think we see more whistleblowing because whistleblowers are more and more the last line of defense. And when we’ve systematically underfunded and and outsourced a number of regulatory authorities who would ordinarily call out wrong doing investigative journalism is gradually fading or rapidly fading in our rearview mirror. There are a lot of people once upon a time, a lot of jobs that were that were detailed with calling out wrongdoing. At the same time, there’s an enormous amount of normalization of what would ordinarily what would in the past have been considered illegal or immoral behavior as clever business practice. And we accept conflicts of interest like revolving door as an excellent career move rather than rather than distorting which is really what it is. We have an increasing cult of legalization and secrecy. So if I want to ask a question of anyone at a university and an NGO, they refer me to legal right heel says we have no comment and conversation is over, you know, all of these things, I think, have driven a, you know, a kind of a hermetically sealed environment among the institutions and groups and organizations, that people on the outside of just more and more pains to understand what’s going on in the inside and inside is notice and a few insiders with a conscience feel it’s their duty to speak out. So I think that’s why whistleblowing has, has risen in the last couple decades. Zachary, you had a question? Yeah.
Zachary Suri 13:48
Historically, and currently, how has and how does the media display whistleblowers?
Tom Mueller 13:56
Yeah, it’s the center spinner principle here. Unfortunately, I think this does a great disservice to whistleblowers. So often, they are portrayed as these noble, you know, courageous, which often they are truth tellers, and people of conscience or their creative, they’re portrayed as narcissistic spies and, and disgruntled employees and the usual dichotomy, and I think that really, again, takes us away from the facts. What facts did these people bring forward? And how good are the specs? Can they be proven in a court of law? Those are the key questions we need to ask. And creating this standard center. dichotomy does a great disservice. I think, too, with too many whistleblowers, because if you’re supposed to be Mother Teresa, and someone finds a mole on the back of your neck, all of a sudden, your entire narrative goes out the window,
Jeremi Suri 14:50
right. But I like your point before Tom, that you could be a far from perfect person, but still bring out really important information. This is how you talk about it. Snowden, for example, in the book, it seems to be
Tom Mueller 15:03
right. You know, I don’t know Ed. Personally, I read a great deal about him I think a great deal of him I I’m not sure he’s the perfect example. But you know, in order to in order to speak out you quite often it must not be a go along to get along person you must not be the life of the party, you might be a little prickly might be a little rules base might be a little Eagle Scout. And which means that you know, it you’re more free from the, you know, the ties of friendship and loyalty. And, and you can actually speak the truth. You know, a number of people that I interviewed for my book, in, you know, nuclear safety and in food safety and in health care and so on. They found themselves very rapidly at odds with their with their group, but but always questioned them the the tendency of people just to swallow hook line and thinker the organization’s mission statement and not not push back at.
Jeremi Suri 16:06
What do you say to those who and many are making this argument now? who say, well, whistleblowers are really just a sign of the deep state of individuals who are trying to stand in the way of change because they don’t like change.
Tom Mueller 16:20
Well, again, it’s deflecting, from the facts we’re taking, we’re taking the messenger rather than the message, what are their motivations, what’s in their mind who are the puppet puppet masters who are pulling their strings? I think the current Ukraine whistleblowers at this point, is a great example of that. Now, it may well be that this is a sort of a palace coup, and the revenge of the clappers and the Hayden’s, and so on. But, you know, until otherwise proven, what we’re interested in is the data they can bring forward, and the documents that they can supply and the individuals who will be called forward under subpoena to testify before Congress, we want to know what they know. And I don’t care what they had for breakfast door, what kind of Pelton they were, I want to know their facts. So that’s, again, just like the what my company company called them spy is. And, you know, I think the deep state narrative, while it may be true, it is a disconnection from what we need to know from these people. And if it turns out that this is a conspiracy, without fact, they need to be punished. But my suspicion is that they’re pretty much telling us what we already partially know, from the White House itself.
Jeremi Suri 17:30
Right. And And what about the claim the president is made that he should have a right to confront the whistleblowers? Should they be protected in their anonymity?
Tom Mueller 17:39
Absolutely. It’s guaranteed by law. I mean, his statement is complete poppycock. That that’s, you know, high plains drifter conversation. I need to meet them in the OK Corral. Yes. Their anonymity is guaranteed by law they made that those disclosures, well, the both of them so far made the disclosures under that game guarantee now they may decide to give that up. And it may be given up for them when they testified before Congress. But that is a that is a guarantee of the law and anonymity. And in their case, and in many cases of whistleblowing is the ideal world scenario. Because, you know, once you are known, the smear machine goes into full, full speed. And the damage to you personally and professionally, can be immense that your career is largely over in any case.
Jeremi Suri 18:28
And I think, by the way, that’s another real strength of your book, you show how powerful retaliation often is, whether it’s a military or intelligence whistleblower, or university whistleblower, or someone in in state government, and it really brought home to me in your book how important anonymity is to protect someone and to provide them with the sense that they could do this and still have a life. Right.
Tom Mueller 18:51
Right. Yeah, the visceral personal nature of retaliation is something that is really shocking to see. And it happens again, and again, and again, in all of the arenas I look at. And it tells me that that’s deeply rooted in human nature. And in the, the, you know, the loyalty of authority drives that that have helped us to survive through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, but at the same time, create enemies, or potential enemies of everyone outside of our tribal group, you know, in certain environments, that those those becomes so charged. And I think whistle blowing, is one of the most eye opening examples like road rage and ready. So that’s where this over the top reaction occurs.
Jeremi Suri 19:40
So Tom, we like to close every one of our episodes, with a positive historical set of lessons and even a positive agenda for our many young listeners. This is, as you said, before we turned on the recording. This is in some ways, a very depressing book. It’s a book about a society that isn’t able to protect itself unless people come forward. And it’s a book about those who come forward often paying a very high price. What what are the lessons that we can take from this for the renewal of our democracy?
Tom Mueller 20:13
I think more than any other lesson I got out of this book, and having the privilege to spend a lot of time with a lot of whistleblowers, although their difficulties are extreme. And and their ability to actually fix problems is sometimes limited. The fact that an individual one person armed with facts can step forward, take on multibillion dollar multinational corporation or an entire government agency and prevail is a really uplifting thing. I mean, the voice the power of the truth is remarkably strong. And I think that’s empowering that voice further. Is is something that that will undoubtedly bring us closer to a more just society. It’s uplifting to see these people they look I had to do it, because that’s just the way I am that’s the way I’m that’s the way Americans are. And I think though as one of my whistleblowers said, we’ve kind of forgotten how to be Americans and and they may help us remember how,
Jeremi Suri 21:12
and and Tom, you, you’re still optimistic that this this powerful history will continue even in a world where people attack the facts as they often do.
Tom Mueller 21:22
This is another key question, you know, in a whistle blowing and the currency of whistleblowing is fact, post fact, based that currency, but you know, we all have a conscience, we all have common sense, I think we realized a lot of us hopefully realized that we really gone way beyond the pale. I mean, my book traces the steps by which over 50 years, the ground was prepared for Trump that he didn’t come from Mars, he came from a series of historical evolutions that are quite clear to trace, we definitely need to come back to honesty, back ethics, professional ethics, and all of those who have helped to undercut facts and and on the left and the right. need to take a step back and say what what it is, what is it that we have that has brought us so near to the brink here? But I think, you know, I think that things have gotten so badly that a lot of people will get up off the couch, put down the remote boat and make their politics physical.
Jeremi Suri 22:23
Zachary, what do you think? Is this inspiring for young people like you?
Zachary Suri 22:27
Yes, I think this is a really powerful tool, because I think something that really resonated with what you said was the the power of of the anonymity it takes the personal away. And I think that the this idea of the whistleblower makes all of us stand back and really think about what moment we’re in and how we’ve come to this moment.
Jeremi Suri 22:50
I agree, Zachary. Tom, thank you so much for joining us. I want to encourage all of our listeners at this moment when we’re reading about whistleblowers, to read Tom’s book crisis of conscience published by Tom Muller really a terrific elaboration of many of the points that Tom made here, Zachary, thank you for your poem. Thank you for joining us on this is democracy.
This podcast is produced by the liberal arts development studio and the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harrison Lemke and you can find his music at Harrison lemke.com.
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