Reviewed 10/28/2016

Bravehearts, by Mark Hertsgaard

Whistle-Blowing in the Age of Snowden
Mark Hertsgaard
New York: Hot Books, May 2016




ISBN-13 978-1-5007-0337-7
ISBN 1-5007-0337-3 164pp. HC $21.99
Events during and after the Trump administration prompted me to re-read Hertsgaard's book and update this review in fall 2023. We have never needed whistle-blowers more than we do now; in fact, we need every citizen to be a whistle-blower in every election — most especially in the 2024 presidential election when the very survival of American democracy will be at risk.

The title of this book is aptly chosen, for whistle-blowers always pay a penalty if they expose a serious problem. They may not suffer punishment as dire as Mel Gibson's character faced in the movie Braveheart, but loss of job, criminal charges, and vilification are typical and physical attacks are not unknown.

There are laws in the U.S. that are supposed to protect whistle-blowers from such retaliation, but in practice they have proven easy to circumvent. Such laws date back to thirteenth-century England, the time of the Magna Carta, when they were enacted to limit the power of England's kings. They are known collectively as qui tam laws.1 The U.S. law was strengthened by Congress in 1986 to counter corporate greed, against strong resistance, but there is still a need to bolster it further.

Mark Hertsgaard reports here on the latest round of battles between whistle-blowers and the powerful interests that invariably seek to suppress their concerns, and if suppression fails to punish them. Contrary to my first impression, his primary focus is not on Edward Snowden, though he acknowledges the contribution of that now exiled man. Rather, he discusses the modern history of whistle-blowing, from the days of Daniel Ellsberg and A. Ernest Fitzgerald to the present. He finds many whistle-blowers to profile.2 But the crux of the story is the battles between five other national-security whistle-blowers and their superiors in government. As always, the lesson is that the decision to expose misconduct in one's organization is triply perilous: if one works within the system, non-responsiveness is the norm, ostracism or expulsion the reward for persistence; taking the matter public is likely to incur more severe reprisals, often criminal charges; and choosing to keep silent can weigh on the conscience for the rest of your life.

Hertsgaard shows us all three outcomes. The tale is not a pleasant one. But he reminds us that whistle-blowing is important, even vital, if we are to keep the rights provided to us in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. The matters he covers in this book — issues of unconstitutional searches, economic inequality, safety while traveling, environmental change — are especially germane to our upcoming election.

Hertsgaard writes accurately and well, commits few typographical errors, and makes a solid case. I give it top marks and rate it a must-read, especially now. It has endnotes, but no index. I'd like to call it a keeper, but since it lacks that index I cannot.

Whistle-blowers take the system at its word, confronting colleagues and superiors with well-documented objections, demanding answers, and then they seem shocked when their entreaties are rebuffed and they end up in hot water; surely everyone else should care as much as they do about making things right, shouldn't they?

– Page 88

Well, yes; they should. And we should have a government that we can trust enough to take at its word, at least when it comes to the documents on which it is based — those documents that every politician vows to respect but which most treat as inconvenient when the crunch comes. The fast-approaching election will make an immense difference in that, offering us a choice between undisciplined irrationality and competent elitism.

Effective Whistle-blowing
1 For more on the history of qui tam laws, see my review of Giantkillers.
2 Even so, the ones he names are but a small fraction of the whole, even considering only the past 50 years. For a longer list, see my review of Ralph Nader's Whistle Blowing.
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