Cover image of "Bravehearts," a book about national security

Since 2013, when Edward Snowden released a flood of classified data from the National Security Agency to the public eye, whistle-blowers have come under increased scrutiny. Snowden’s courageous act has highlighted the earlier efforts of other men and women whose names are familiar to many Americans: Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), Frank Serpico (NYPD), Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco), Karen Silkwood (nuclear industry), Coleen Rowley (FBI – 9/11),  Sherron Watkins (Enron), and Chelsea Manning (Wikileaks).

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As Mark Hertsgaard makes clear in his study of contemporary whistle-blowing in the U.S. government, Bravehearts, we owe a great deal to these brave people, who have helped keep democracy alive in America. However, he makes clear that these high-profile cases are among those involving hundreds of other men and women who have brought to light wrongdoing both in government and in private industry over the past several decades.

Bravehearts: Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard ★★★★★

National security or insecurity?

Though whistle-blowers come to light in corporations as well as government agencies, Hertsgaard’s focus in Bravehearts is on those who have worked in the federal government. Much of his information comes from a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization, the Government Accountability Project, known as GAP. The author himself witnessed GAP’s creation in 1978 as a project of the Institute of Policy Studies, and he has reported on its findings on several occasions in the years since then.

One constant them in Hertsgaard’s book, and in GAP’s work in general, is a pattern of retaliation that almost invariably greets any well-meaning whistle-blower. Those who go through channels to report lawbreaking are typically fired and sometimes subjected to far worse. Those who go public in hopes of avoiding the harsh treatment that has greeted so many of their predecessors typically receive the harshest treatment. For example, as Hertsgaard points out, it’s not just Edward Snowden who has borne the brunt of the government’s antipathy.

“The Obama administration has brought charges against seven whistle-blowers under the Espionage Act, far more than any previous administration has charged.” Given the importance of what came to light as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, it’s important to ask whether his act made the American people less secure, or more so. I believe, as Hertsgaard clearly does as well, that national security in a democracy must rest on the rule of law. It was lawbreaking that led Snowden to do what he has done. The same is true of so many others cited by the author in this superb little book. Without question, we are more secure as a result rather than less.

Why do they do it?

In explaining the motivation that leads whistle-blowers to act, Hertsgaard quotes Thomas Devine, GAP’s long-time legal director: “Whistle-blowers don’t start out as dissidents. Usually, they are the ones who believe most strongly in the institution where they work. That’s why they speak out — to help the institution live up to its mission. It’s the indifference and retaliation from management many whistle-blowers face that can turn them into dissidents.”

Hertsgaard’s book comes to grip with a question that no doubt has puzzled many Americans: why did he do what he did how he did it? Why did he go public instead of going through channels, as President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton belatedly (and, I believe, disingenuously) suggested he should have done?

In answering this question, the author cites the experiences of two other whistle-blowers in the national security community: Thomas Drake and John Crane. Like Snowden, the former was employed at the National Security Agency though in a much more senior position. He tried to blow the whistle on the same illegal practices that Snowden successfully brought to light only many years later. His mistake was to go through channels; the result was that he was fired, stripped of his federal pension, indicted and threatened with prison, the FBI raided his home at gunpoint, his security clearance was removed, and he became unemployable to the extent that “he was reduced to clerking at an Apple store” in suburban Maryland.

Whistleblowers ratted out to the Justice Department

Crane, whose “testimony [is] published here for the first time,” was the assistant inspector general of the Department of Defense in charge of supervising the Department’s whistle-blower office. When he acted as expected and took his complaints about Drake’s shabby treatment to his superiors, he was ordered to shut down his investigation and identify Drake to the FBI. “To his horror, Crane watched as Drake and . . . four other NSA whistle-blowers were secretly ratted out to the Justice Department and then had their homes raided at gunpoint by federal agents.” As GAP’s Tom Devine explained, “Crane was our fly on the wall, letting us understand after the fact what really happened to Drake.” Hertsgaard notes: “Crane’s account illuminates how a system that in theory is supposed to protect whistle-blowing can in practice do just the opposite, a lesson Snowden took to heart when planning his own disclosures.”

About the author

Mark Hertsgaard is best known as the author of On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and as the environmental correspondent for The Nation. Bravehearts is his seventh book. Six years ago, he published Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, a discussion of the consequences of climate change that I reviewed in this spot.

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