10 Most Famous Whistleblowers from History

A whistleblower is an individual who exposes any type of activity or information that is unethical or illegal within a public or private organization. While whistleblowing can be done to report someone violating company rules or regulations or is a threat to the public, in most cases, it is done to expose fraud and corruption.

Whistleblowers tend to reveal the information either externally or internally. They might even contact a third party, like a news source. Once upon a time, famous whistleblowers took a great risk and faced retaliation from those who were accused of the wrongdoing. But today, whistleblowing is encouraged in most public institutions, and there are established business laws to prevent the company from terminating a whistleblower.

Whistleblowing is not a new idea; in the United States, the tradition of whistleblowing started in 1773 when Benjamin Franklin leaked letters regarding the Hutchinson affair. Since then, numerous cases of whistleblowing have been reported.

Here is a list of 10 famous whistleblowers:

1. Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden was hired by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA contractor and very soon became disillusioned with the surveillance programs that NSA was involved in. He voiced his concern to his superiors about the ethical aspects of spying on Americans, but his complaints were dismissed. He then downloaded tens of thousands of files from his NSA office in Hawaii and flew to Hong Kong. Snowden exposed how NSA was conducting surveillance not only in the U.S. but globally as well.

Known as one of the most famous whistleblowers in history, Snowden escaped to Moscow, where he currently resides. So far, his future in Russia remains in limbo as he has not been granted permanent asylum.

2. Mordechai Vanunu
Mordechai Vanunu is an Israeli nuclear technician and peace activist.

In 1986, he revealed to the British press the details of the extent of the nuclear program in Israel, which came as a shock to the rest of the world. Soon, Mordechai was lured by Israeli intelligence to Italy where he was drugged and secretly transported back to Israel. There was a trial behind closed doors where he was convicted for revealing state secrets.

Vanunu spent nearly 18 years in prison, and even after his release, he has been subject to strict restrictions. Some regard Mordechai as a hero of the nuclear era.

3. Julian Assange
Julian Assange is an Australian publisher and journalist who founded WikiLeaks in 2006. He eventually became one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history.

In 2010, he gained international fame for publishing leaks provided by American Chelsea Manning. The leaks included classified information about Iraq and Afghanistan wars and Cable Gate. The leaks revealed how the U.S. government operated illegally during the wars in many countries.

In 2010, the U.S. government launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for seven years. At present, Assange is currently awaiting extradition to the U.S. following his arrest.

4. Mark Felt
Mark Felt was an FBI agent, also known as Deep Throat. It was he who exposed the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Mark provided evidence of a cover-up to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who worked for The Washington Post. Mark Felt’s identity was kept a secret until 2005.

5. Bradley Birkenfeld
Bradley Birkenfeld was a banker and wealth manager with UBS. He received the largest whistleblower reward ($104 million) when he reported his company’s IRS Tax Fraud. Birkenfeld is known to be the first international banker to reveal the existence of offshore bank accounts in Switzerland by U.S. citizens. It was because of this major breakthrough that the Swiss government was forced to change its tax treaty with the U.S. and had to provide the names of numerous American taxpayers who had illegal offshore accounts.

6. Chelsea Manning
Chelsea Manning was instrumental in leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. She was convicted and incarcerated for 35 years, but President Barack Obama granted clemency, and she was freed in 2016.

She was recently arrested again for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in the WikiLeaks case.

7. Daniel Ellsberg
Daniel Ellsberg was an employee of the State Department. He is the one who leaked the Pentagon Papers, documents that outlined how the U.S. came to fight the Vietnam War. Nixon’s government made a great effort to prevent the papers from being published in The New York Times and The Washington Post but was not successful.

8. Sherron Watkins
Sherron Watkins was the Vice President of Corporate Development at Enron Corporation. In 2001, she alerted ENRON CEO Kenneth Lay of the severe financial irregularities. The scandal led to a loss of nearly $74 billion and the collapse of one of the biggest energy companies in the USA.

9. Linda Tripp
Linda Tripp did not intend to be a whistleblower, but she just ended up in the middle of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. She secretly recorded her discussion with Monica Lewinsky about her relationship with then-President Bill Clinton. She was actually not willing to surrender the tapes but had to do it to avoid being charged with illegal wiretapping.

10. Jeffrey Wigand
Jeffrey Wigand was the Vice President of R&D at Brown & Williamson, a tobacco company. He revealed that the executives at this company knowingly approved the addition of carcinogenic and addictive products to their tobacco. He accused his company publicly and received death threats if he didn’t keep quiet.

You do not need to wear a cape to be a hero. Whistleblowers are doing a great service to the public, sacrificing their safety and livelihood. Whether it is government abusing its authority or a corporation trying to profit off of the misery of others, these famous whistleblowers have informed the world.