Skip to content
National Politics
Link copied to clipboard

The perils and imperatives of conscience

The dark side of blowing the whistle

The death last week of Mark Felt – best known as Deep Throat, the FBI guy who spilled the beans on Watergate – has prompted some media

» READ MORE: praise

for those rare civil servants who blow the whistle on government perfidy. But even though Felt is arguably the most famous of all whistle blowers, he didn’t suffer in the workplace the way so many whistle blowers do. Unlike other members of that elite little group,  Felt managed to guard his secret identity; as a result, he wasn’t ostracized at work, or demoted, or threatened with criminal or civil punishment.

No, a far more typical whistle blower is Thomas Tamm – hardly a household name, but perhaps he deserves to be. As

» READ MORE: profiled

the other day in Newsweek, Tamm turns out to be a classic example of the genre. He’s suffering from depression, he’s 30 grand in debt, he’s struggling to make a living after leaving the U.S. Justice Department, and he’s currently in legal limbo, thanks to the ongoing threat of retaliatory federal prosecution for potential offenses that could land him in jail for a decade.

Thomas Tamm, a former career fed whose father and uncle were big shots in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, is the guy who blew the whistle on George W. Bush’s illegal, warrantless domestic surveillance program. In the spring of 2004, he went to a pay phone and dialed up The New York Times.

As a lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (tasked to request permission for national-security wiretaps), Tamm didn’t know all the details about the program, but he knew enough to conclude that it “didn’t smell right,” and that his higher-ups were apparently violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – the 1978 law which mandated that ongoing domestic surveillance could only be conducted with “probable cause,” as approved by a secret court of federal judges. When Tamm got wind of the illegal program, he asked himself, “I’m a law-enforcement officer, and I’m participating in something that is illegal?” His ultimate motive for spilling the beans was quite simple; as he told Newsweek, “I had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution.”

I was struck by those comments; they conjured some old memories. Two decades ago, I wrote a long magazine story about federal whistle-blowers, based on interviews around the country, and the people I met were a lot like Tamm. They had the same psychological makeup. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“They are workaholics, even perfectionists. They have a strong sense of personal worth. They’re trusting souls who believe that evil is no match for good. They aren’t rebels by nature. They tend to be cultural conservatives…Typically, when the crisis of conscience hits, they can be found on the middle rungs of the career ladder – high enough to have witnessed a betrayal of the public interest, but low enough to be out of the loop. They trust that the system will applaud their virtue, and its only after the first rude shock of rejection that they confront their naivete. But once wronged, they will risk alienating even their families in the quest for vindictation…They become living testaments to the dark side of sainthood.”

After dropping a dime on the wrongdoing they’ve witnessed, life typically gets ugly. The Justice Department launched an investigation to determine who leaked to The Times, and figured out Tamm’s involvement (although he was not the only leaker). Sixteen months ago, 18 FBI agents raided Tamm’s house, confiscated everything from his childrens' laptops to the family Christmas card list, and began quizzing all his friends and associates about Tamm’s political loyalties. (One retired judge, who had served as Tamm’s mentor, told the FBI agents that “operating outside the FISA law was one of the biggest injustices of the Bush administration,” and that if Tamm had blown the whistle, “I’d be proud of him for doing that.”)

Tamm’s ongoing predicament – he could still be prosecuted under a federal statute that bars disclosure of any information deemed harmful to the “national defense” – somehow triggered memories of Billie Garde, one of the whistle-blowers whom I interviewed 20 years ago. Their jobs were very different, as were the retaliatory actions. But still…

Garde grew up in Oklahoma, and was taught by her parents that integrity was a virtue not to be compromised. In high school, while working at a movie theater, she’d seen her co-workers skimming the popcorn money. But she said nothing. The scam was discovered, and all the employes had to appear in juvenile court. Her parents told her that her silence had been akin to complicity, and they forced her to confess his acquiesance to her younger siblings.

Flash forward to young adulthood, and a job at the U.S. Census Bureau office in Muskogee, Okla. Her boss turned out to be a well-connected Democrat with congressional ambitions who proceeded to use the office as a political front, copying the master address list and selling it to Democratic political operatives. Garde, after much hesitation, complained to Census Bureau higher-ups. In retaliation, she was fired, and her boss convinced a local judge to award full custody of Garde’s two young daughters to her ex-husband. It took Garde another year to get her kids back, and it took her eight years to collect $3000 in back wages. Yet she still insisted, “I can justify why I blew the whistle, I understand why I did it.”

She did it for the same reason that Tamm did it; as one of Tamm’s lawyers, Asa Hutchinson (a former top-ranked Department of Homeland Security official) told Newsweek, “the action he took was based on his view of a higher responsibility.”

It’s no fun to speak truth to power – Harry Truman once said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog – and Tamm will forever be lauded by some as a hero and assailed by others as a traitor. But, given the track record of government wrongdoing, we’ll always need people of conscience who defy the pressures of conformity. As one of my whistle blowers, Vince Laubach (who ran afoul of the Interior Department after exposing corruption), told me 20 years ago:

“I think, as Americans, we’ve lost our sense of sin. Douglas MacArthur used to talk about duty and honor. Whatever happened to honor? What about our sense of decency? I did what I could (by blowing the whistle). But what about everybody else?"