Everyone has secrets. But while they may be terribly embarrassing or humiliating to the people who keep them buried year after year, their exposure rarely makes a ripple beyond the outer boundaries of their lives. But people aren’t the only ones who carry secrets. Powerful institutions like governments and business also sometimes have information they would rather keep from the public domain. Shady practices, incompetence, or outright illegality are all things that these institutions have a vested interest in keeping under wraps, even though dozens or hundreds of people in the institutions may have knowledge of them. How do they do it? They take advantage of the fact that most human beings don’t like to rock the boat. Whether their secrets involve them having an affair or their company poisoning children in the Third World, most people swallow their distaste and allow bad things to happen, rather than upset the lives they have built.
But some people reach a point where they can no longer keep the secret. Whether it’s because they are morally outraged or just want plain revenge, some people risk their status, friends, careers, and even their lives to bring the truth to the light of public scrutiny, no matter how ugly or damning it may be. We call those people “whistle-blowers.” Here are the top ten of them who saw something wrong, and could not remain silent.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Now and then we like to dig back into the TopTenz.net archives and re-share some of our best content as TopTenz Classics. Please enjoy this classic list from 2011.)
10. Cheryl Eckard
Of the great advancements in science that marked the 20th Century, one of the most remarkable has been the creation of thousands of new drugs and medicines. Diseases and conditions that once caused suffering and death across the globe can now be treated with just a few pills. Life expectancy is up, and people can live healthier lives than we ever dreamed possible. Unfortunately, sometimes the guys who make these wonder drugs are more interested in raking in as much cash as they can than making people’s lives better. Take GlaxoSmithKline for example. In 2003, Glaxo Quality Assurance Manager Cherly Eckard warned her bosses that standards at one of their huge factories in Puerto Rico were leaving a lot to be desired. Drugs were being contaminated and frequently contained more or less of the active ingredients than they were supposed to. Eckard’s warnings went unheeded. Despite the fact that her job was on the line, she repeatedly complained to the company and tried to get the factory up to code. For her trouble, GlaxoSmithKline fired Eckard. Undeterred, she went to the authorities and blew the whistle on the company’s wrongdoing. After a lengthy legal battle, GlaxoSmithKline was fined $750 million and forced to clean up the problems at the factory. And Cherly Eckard? She was awarded a cool $96 million in damages. Doing the right thing can be profitable sometimes.
9. Marc Hodler
In theory, the Olympics are meant to be an international expression of cooperation, brotherhood, and the power of sport to unite mankind across cultures. For the athletes who participate in them, they are a culmination of years of struggle and preparation. They are a place where they can show the world their best and represent their country in beautiful displays of human achievement. For others, namely the people who organize the Games, they are sometimes seen as little more than a gold lined trough. One of the worst examples in modern history of the corruption that lies underneath the Olympics was the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Frustrated at repeated failures to win the Games (the closet one being the 1998 Games that went to Nagano, Japan), Salt Lake officials decided that they were going to get the games no matter what it took. And what it took was a whole lot of gifts to the people who choose the host. It seemed that The International Olympic Committee (IOC) members had a price, and Salt Lake was more than willing to pay it. They gave cash, expensive trips, jobs, and even plastic surgery to IOC members in order to secure their votes. No one knows exactly how much was paid out, but it wasn’t an accident that the Salt Lake City Games were nearly $400 million over budget. Unfortunately, this was business as usual. But then one member, a former Swiss ski coach called Marc Hodler, had had enough. He went to the press and threw a light on the whole sordid affair. Thanks to him, several members were sacked and a new set rules were introduced. The Olympics are still mostly about money, but at least now they’re less about buying expensive gifts for Eurotrash.
8. Mark Whitacre
In 1992, Mark Whitacre was on top of the world. He was rich, happily married, and a rising star at his company. An executive at food industry giant Archers Daniel Midland, he was president of their Bioproducts Division which oversaw the use of food additives. But things changed dramatically that year when he became involved in an international scheme to fix the price of additives such as lysine and citric acid. Along with several major Agribusiness companies from around the world, ADM artificially set the world price for these additives and committed one of the biggest corporate crimes in American history . Under pressure from his wife, Whitacre went to the FBI with details of the plan. If that had been the end of it, Whitacre would still probably be remembered as a great whistleblower, but he went one step further. For the next three years, Whitacre went undercover for the FBI and secretly recorded hundreds of meetings all over the world to expose the plot. His evidence led to hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to the companies involved. Unfortunately, Whitacre was also busy embezzling $9 million dollars from the company at the time, so he ended up in jail himself, and for much longer than any of the people he helped expose. He’s since been released and even got to be played by Matt Damon in the 2009 movie about the case The Informant!
7. Coleen Rowley
When the first plane slammed into the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001, the nation and the world were overcome with shock. From out of nowhere and with no warning, a small handful of terrorists had staged a massive attack in the largest city of the most powerful country on the earth. Suddenly war and terror weren’t something that happened “over there.” The fire, destruction and death that America had been spared for so long were right here on the doorstep. How had these men been able to strike at the heart of the country without raising a single bit of suspicion? Well, the truth is, they didn’t. It turns out that government agencies had intelligence that the attacks were imminent. The FBI in particular, received a report from its Minneapolis field office that Zacarias Moussaoui was possibly involved in preparations for a suicide hijacking. That office, and Field Agent Coleen Rowley requested permission to search Moussaoui’s rooms and laptop, but were denied by her bosses. Once the attacks happened, Rowley was sure they could have derailed or delayed them if they had had the chance to go after Moussaoui. And she wasted no time in telling her superiors and the 9/11 Commission. Because of her honesty and willingness to come forward, changes were made in the FBI to improve counterterrorism investigations and intelligence gathering. She soon retired and was named one of TIME’s “Men of the Year” for 2002.
6. Peter Buxtun
There are a lot of dark chapters in American history. A lot of times where the government or large institutions did horrible, horrible things, safe behind walls of silence and complicity. One of the worst examples of the US government treating its citizens like lab rats was the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service researched the natural progression of untreated syphilis. Unfortunately, to do this, they needed a group of people afflicted with the disease to not receive treatment. Despite the fact that it was unethical and grossly violated the Hippocratic Oath, the doctors who conducted the study decided to not only deny treatment to the participants, but to also deliberately mislead them as to the nature of their disease. They watched and took notes as 399 poor, African-American sharecroppers suffered the ravages of syphilis, even though a simple cure was discovered early in the study and could relieve them of their suffering at any time. When Peter Buxton, a venereal disease investigator, joined the study in 1966, he started to raise concerns over the lack of ethical concerns. When his superiors decided to continue their research anyway, he went to the papers. In the ensuing investigation, it was revealed that the men in the study had, in many cases, also given the disease to their wives and passed it on to their children. The study was stopped and the government was forced to pay the participants and pay for their medical care for the rest of their lives.
5. Frank Serpico
After a hardscrabble youth on the streets of Brooklyn and a stint in the Korean War, Frank Serpico joined the New York Police Department in 1959. He rose through the ranks and quickly was promoted to plainclothes work exposing racketeering. Unfortunately for him, Frank Serpico was just about the only honest cop in New York City at the time. Appalled by the rampant corruption he saw all around him, Serpico went to his superiors with his evidence and waited while the charges made their way through the convoluted department bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the officers who weren’t so honest didn’t appreciate some upstart detective fouling up the good thing they had going. Things only got worse when Serpico, out of fear that he was about to be discovered by his coworkers, went to the New York Times with the whole story. His courage led to the creation of the Knapp Commission and his testimony helped the badly tarnished New York Police Department clean up their act. Well, a little, anyway. Serpico paid a dear price for his whistle-blowing however as he was shot in the face during a job and wasn’t assisted by his fellow officers. Serpico survived the attack and soon retired from the force. He took his share of the hit book and film royalties (he also got to be played by Al Pacino) of his story and ended up living in the Swiss mountains for ten years. He remains today one of the prime examples of what one person can do if they have the courage to blow the whistle.
4. Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood was a worker at the Kerr-McGee nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. Silkwood soon became active in the Oil. Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union and was in charge of investigating the health and safety concerns of workers at the plant. Despite the company’s assurances, Silkwood found what she believed were major violations of health and safety regulations. She reported her concerns to The Atomic Energy Commission, hoping that Kerr-McGee would make their workplace safer. Instead, her life became a living hell. Almost immediately after she went to AEC, Silkwood tested positive for massive plutonium exposure. Unable to determine where she had been exposed, investigators found that several surfaces in her house had been contaminated with plutonium. Kerr-McGee claimed she was deliberately exposing herself to create sympathy, while Silkwood alleged the company was giving her contaminated testing equipment. Frustrated and afraid for her and her family’s health, Silkwood decided to show her evidence to The New York Times. She left a union meeting with binders and documents to meet the reporters. She never arrived. Police found her car run off the road and Silkwood dead inside. There were no documents to be found. The case remains controversial and Kerr-McGee has always denied any wrong doing. Still, the chilling end of Karen Silkwood is a reminder that sometimes the price of blowing the whistle can be very high indeed.
3. Bradley Manning
Although the long term ramifications of his act have yet to play out, Bradley Manning has definitely earned a place among the most famous whistle-blowers of all time. A low level Army intelligence analyst, Manning was single-handedly responsible for one of the largest leaks of classified data in the history of the world. Serving in Iraq, Manning circumvented Army security and downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as pages after page of diplomatic cables. Frustrated with the war, and his treatment by the army, he passed the trove on to Julian Assange, who rel;eased them to several newspapers and is currently in the process of publishing them on Wikileaks. Despite the lack of a clear “smoking gun” in the documents – they mostly add color to events already known or suspected – and Manning’s murky reasons for releasing them, it still remains an impressive revelation. It will take years for the true value of the document’s release to be gauged, but Manning will go down in history as a man who – right or wrong- ripped the lid off United States foreign policy in the 21st Century and forever changed the face of whistle-blowing.
2. Daniel Ellsberg
Long before Bradley Manning downloaded government documents onto Lady Gaga CDs, another man walked out of his government office with hundreds of documents that catalogued in great detail the malfeasance of American government institutions. The man, Daniel Ellsberg, was a graduate of Harvard, former Marine Lieutenant, Pentagon official, and researcher for the RAND Corporation think tank. Originally a supporter of the Vietnam War (and combatant in it) Ellsberg became disillusioned and decided he had an obligation to do whatever he could to try and bring the war to an end. Luckily for him, he had access to a report commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that became known as the Pentagon Papers. The report detailed not only the history of the U.S.’s involvement in the war, but also how the White House had repeatedly lied to the public and Congress about their prosecution of it. Originally, Ellsberg only circulated it among friends, but once the New York Times got a hold of it, he decided to leak it to several major American newspapers. A patriot at heart, he then surrendered to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to stand trial. At the trial, it was revealed that the same burglars who had broken into The Watergate had also broken into his doctor’s office looking for incriminating evidence. This, coupled with the revelation that the government had illegal wiretapped Ellsberg, led to his release. Ellsberg continued his anti-war activism, and remains today a hero for all those who believe a transparent government is an essential condition of democracy.
1. W. Mark Felt (Deep Throat)
Although more than 40 years have passed since W. Mark Felt (then known only as Deep Throat) spilled his secrets to Robert Woodward in a dark Washington carpark, he still remains the most famous whistleblower of all time. The details of the case are well known. For many years, the administration of Richard Nixon had been involved in illegal break-ins, covert operations, and campaign violations. But if it hadn’t been for Felt, these events may have remained secret forever. His inside information on the Watergate Scandal helped Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein publish a series of damning articles in the Washington Post and indirectly led to the destruction of Richard Nixon’s presidency. But why did he do it? Associate Director of the FBI at the time, some have speculated that he was upset at being passed over for the Directorship after J.Edgar Hoover died, while others have claimed he was a profoundly moral man who felt he had a patriotic duty to expose the malfeasance of a corrupt Administration. Whatever his reasons, W. Mark Felt’s leaks did no less than change the way the American public viewed its most powerful institutions. From that time forward, the American people would no longer implicitly trust the president, and a deep culture of pessimism continues to surround almost every aspect of political life in the United States. All because W. Mark Felt told someone the truth.