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Employees in the public and private sector alike are under numerous obligations to keep the confidences of their employers. But the history of the last half-century is filled with federal whistleblowers who felt the public had a right to know their employers’ best-kept – and illegal – secrets.

Here are five of the most famous federal whistleblower cases in U.S. history to help you understand your own whistleblower rights.

Famous Whistleblower Cases

1. Edward Snowden Publishes Top Secret Documents

Snowden is famous for releasing thousands of documents, including State Department diplomatic cables, through journalists including Greenwald, who have been publishing them in newspapers for years. He is now so famous that, according to The New York Times, Snowden will be performing Shakespeare with actor Daniel Radcliffe-via video uplink, of course.

Snowden is still evading United States government efforts to prosecute him. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is cracking down on new whistleblower cases. The Department of Justice accuses Snowden of violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property; the total sentence could add up to 30 years in prison. So far, Snowden has claimed political asylum, mostly in Russia, to avoid returning to face prosecution in the U.S.. While the 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblowers Act provides some protection for whistleblowers, it may not cover Snowden’s case.

2. P.F.C. Chelsea Manning Leaks Classified Data

Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning was a former military intelligence analyst who released thousands of classified documents, including Afghanistan war logs. A video he released of an American Apache helicopter crew killing civilians went viral on the web. The documents were released through WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website run by famous transparency advocate Julian Assange, who is now taking refuge at the embassy of Ecuador in London.

In Manning’s prosecution for violations of the Espionage Act, her defense attorney attempted to employ the Military Whistleblower Protection Act. The prosecution, on the other hand, characterized Manning as an “anarchist” rather than a whistleblower. Manning was sentenced to 35 years and dishonorable discharge.

3. Jeffrey Wigand Breaks Confidentiality Agreement

Wigand, former VP of research at tobacco giant Brown and Williamson, exposed the tobacco industry’s knowledge of nicotine addiction on 60 Minutes in 1995. According to CNN, 60 Minutes feared tobacco industry litigation over Wigand’s confidentiality agreement, and delayed airing the interview until the following year. Today, Wigand might have been covered by the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 which provides whistleblower protection to defendants who disclose trade secrets to government agents.

4. Mark Felt (a.k.a. “Deepthroat”) Leaks Watergate Secrets

Mark Felt was the FBI agent who helped Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein investigate the Watergate case. He was able to keep his role in the leak secret for thirty years.
When President Nixon found out about the leak, he wanted to punish Felt, but the Department of Justice didn’t believe Felt had committed a crime. Today, Felt might be covered by the Intelligence Community Whistleblowers Act of 1998.

5. Mark Whitacre Becomes Industry Whistleblower

As discussed in The Decatur Herald & Review, Whitacre was head of the BioProducts division at Archer Daniels Midland when he leaked information on price-fixing of lysine to the FBI. As part of the investigation, he wore a wire to work for the FBI for three years. Whitacre was never charged with a crime related to his price-fixing leak (since he was directly helping the FBI). However, he was later convicted for wire fraud and embezzlement for unrelated activity at ADM, for which he served over eight years in prison.

Whistleblower Retaliation Laws: For Further Reading

  • AB 1509 Means New Protections for California Whistleblowers in 2016
  • General Information About Whistleblowing and Retaliation via Workplace Fairness
  • ‘Qui Tam’ Whistleblowers: Important Facts You Should Know
  • What California Employees Should Know About Whistleblower Retaliation
  • Whistleblower Protection Program via The United States Department of Labor

Both California and federal laws can often protect individuals who participate in whistleblower activities. If you feel your employer unlawfully retaliated against you due to whistleblowing, contact the expert California whistleblower retaliation attorneys at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation today.