Exposing Secrets: The Curious History of U.S. National Security Whistleblowing and State Secrecy

Spring 2019 Colloquium Series

As East Anglia Senior Lecturer in American Studies Kaeten Mistry noted in introducing his February 5 back-and-forth with Kinder Institute Chair Jay Sexton on the history of whistleblowing, the goal of his current research is both genealogical and corrective: to trace the evolution of the concept of whistleblowing, but to do so in a way that moves us beyond the familiar hero/traitor binary and toward an understanding of how the phenomenon emerged in tandem with the development of the national security state and the legal regime of state secrecy. So while familiar names certainly factor in—Daniel Ellsberg in the 1970s, for example, and Edward Snowden in post-9/11 America—the narrative Prof. Mistry is crafting begins much earlier in the 20th century, with the rise of overt and covert American power abroad and the implications for state information that came with it. In framing the discussion to come, Prof. Sexton added that there are also exciting methodological questions raised by Prof. Mistry’s project: How does one craft a history of something for which there is no pre-existing historiographical literature? How does one tell the story of a term that doesn’t appear in indexes or card catalogues?

To be expected, the conversation itself went on to take a number of twists-and-turns and to pursue tangents at a rate sometimes quicker than notes could be taken (though we did manage to jot down the etymological connection between ‘whistleblowing’ the term and the Birmingham-produced, English bobby and football referee-endorsed Acme Thunderer). What follows is thus a breakdown of some of the key points on which Profs. Mistry and Sexton happened to linger.

How does one define whistleblowing, and how is it different from, say, a leak?

Much of the distinction here comes back to intention and retribution. As Prof. Mistry explained, information leaks (think Deep Throat) are anonymous, highly political, rarely punished, and often personal, though they at least come with the pretense of defending public interest. Whistleblowing, by contrast, is the prosecutable release of private, classified information by an insider who is acting out of a perceived need to shed light on organizational transgression on the part of the state and with the intention of initiating critical reforms in and to democratic society. And it is because of this challenge posed to the status quo that existential hand-wringing and the aforementioned hero/traitor binary have become so prevalent; additionally, it is because of the known identity of the person challenging it that the character of the revealer has often overtaken the nature of what was revealed in public discourse?

Where does the history of U.S. national security whistleblowing start, and what have been some of this history’s notable inflection points?

On one hand, Prof. Mistry cited the passage of the 1947 National Security Act and the subsequent creation of the CIA and the bureaucratized national security state as a landmark moment in the history of whistleblowing in the U.S. But to really get at origins requires going back one world war further, to the 1917 passage of the Espionage Act. A somewhat ad hoc response to the need for a system that would both protect confidential government information and uphold the First Amendment and the democratic tradition of open government, the new bill introduced for the first time in the United States a means of classifying information (confidential, secret, top secret). More importantly, the central compromise of the Espionage Act opened up a legal avenue for punishing whistleblowers. While members of the press were free (within the bounds of law) to publish privileged state information that made its way to their desks, the state was likewise able to prosecute those insiders who violated standardized handling methods by placing this information in the press’ hands.

Ultimately, Prof. Mistry showed, the degree to which the Espionage Act hinged on and encouraged executive prerogative can be used to help explain the whistleblowing boom of the 1970s. This was, to be sure, a decade of executive turmoil, and the events underlying this turmoil—Vietnam, Watergate, revelations about CIA operations abroad—are at the heart of the modern narrative of national security whistleblowing. Daniel Ellsberg, he argued, is a textbook case study in this, a figure who released the Pentagon Papers as a result of his growing disenchantment with what he saw as a violation of public trust in the gap between the nation’s involvement in Vietnam and what the government said about its involvement.

Thinking in terms of a long view, what does the future hold for whistleblowing?

Two things to keep in mind: First, spikes in whistleblowing in the 1970s and the past decade were directly tied to long-running military engagements, so there is a natural dampening (or accelerating) factor associated with the phenomenon. In addition, as recent work in the social sciences has shown, whistleblowing has very little tangible impact on the state and is a generally unstable form of spurring accountability.

That said, Prof. Mistry closed by pointing to a pair of issues that we will likely need to resolve when it comes to responsibly and democratically protecting privileged information going forward. With the national security state growing exponentially since the 1950s, two questions in particular have been raised by the dilemma of more people having more access to more information: How to roll back over-classification of information and, resurrecting Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex, how to address the increasingly blurring lines between the state and the private sector.


Kaeten Mistry received his Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham and currently serves as a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at University of East Anglia and as an Associate of the LSE IDEAS Cold War Studies Programme. He specializes in U.S. history, with a focus on the way American state and private actors have been involved in foreign affairs during the 20th century, and his first book, The United States, Italy, and the Origins of Cold War: Waging Political Warfare, was published by Cambridge University Press. His articles have appeared in Diplomatic History, Cold War History, and Modern Italy, among other places, and he joined the faculty at East Anglia after holding positions at the University of Warwick and University College Dublin.