Above: Mark Felt
Julia Wick is a native Angeleno who writes about literature, Los Angeles, and cities. She is currently finishing an Urban Planning degree at USC.
With Chelsea Manning sentenced to 35 years in prison and Edward Snowden’s future still uncertain, it seems a pertinent time to look at what becomes of our whistleblowers after the initial flurry of publicity fades. On the public stage and popular culture, whistleblowers are both celebrated and reviled, categorized as snitches and traitors, and heroes and martyrs. They are almost always seen as symbols, but they are also often people whose lives are shattered. The U.S. has had some version of whistleblower protection laws on the books since 1778, but whistleblowers themselves have still often faced reprisal, have been left jobless and hounded, personally attacked and professionally discredited. Here are the stories of six famous whistleblowers, and their lives long after the press has picked up and left town.
Jesselyn Radack is a “Lifetime TV writer’s dream”—the mother of two young children and pregnant with her third who had privately struggled with MS since college. She was a government lawyer with the Justice Department’s ethics unit when a colleague asked her to look over the FBI’s interrogation of the John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. She spoke up about the impropriety of Lindh’s being questioned without a lawyer present, and quickly became emblematic of the Ashcroft-era treatment of whistleblowers, her life turned upside-down. And then she did the most unlikely thing of all—became an activist for whistleblowers across the nation. She is currently the National Security & Human Rights Director of the Government Accountability Project.
The cinematic version of Frank Serpico’s life—Serpico, starring Al Pacino in the title role—begins with Serpico being shot in the face during an attempted drug bust and ends with closing credits saying he is “now living somewhere in Switzerland.” Kilgannon’s profile of the honest cop who exposed NYPD corruption picks up four decades later, long after Serpico’s lost years in Europe. Bearded, bitter, and in his early seventies, this Serpico lives a monastic life along the Hudson, just a few hours north of his former city. Perhaps the most poignant scene involves a rewatching of the famous film, which Serpico has never seen in its entirety, on the reporter’s laptop in a small town public library, where “the real Mr. Serpico stared out the window, unable to watch—too painful, he said.”
Pamela Colloff’s character-driven profile of Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins is a reminder of why fans of longform journalism love Texas Monthly. This is a deftly drawn and richly layered narrative of what life is like for a whistleblower who, despite being nationally-lauded, still finds herself rejected by the high-rolling Houston society set to which she once belonged.
No collection of whistleblower stories would be complete without a mention of Mark Felt, née Deep Throat, the source who leaked the details of Watergate to the Washington Post. Felt, who was ultimately responsible for the downfall of an American president, could easily be considered the ur-whistleblower of the last century. Written nearly three decades after the fact, O’Connor’s story finally exposed Felt’s identity.
5. “The Secret Sharer: Is Thomas Drake an Enemy of the State?” by Jane Mayer (New Yorker, May 23, 2011)
Long before Snowden made headlines, Thomas Drake had grave doubts about the NSA’s use of domestic surveillance. Drake, then a senior executive at the NSA, to The Baltimore Sun and was ultimately indicted under the Espionage Act. Mayer uses Drake’s story as a lens to explore the larger issues of warrantless surveillance in post–9/11 America, and though the piece itself is more than two years old and dealing with a case that has now been dropped, it is still relevant, perhaps unsettlingly so.