Public opinion is polarized regarding the mega-leakers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. One common view holds them to be heroic patriots. To others, they’re simply traitors. Prominent whistleblower attorney John Howley asks us to consider the possibility that they can be both at once.
Last week, ATL—along with our friends at Lawline—hosted a fascinating (seriously) and timely CLE course, Whistleblowers, Traitors and the Rule of Law. Howley walked the attendees through the various laws governing whistleblowers, treason, and espionage. He also gave an overview of the most important whistleblower and treason cases, as well as explored the thorny legal and ethical implications for lawyers involved in such cases.
The course was as much a history lesson as a legal one. The role of whistleblower plays an integral part of our national history. In fact, the first American whistleblower law predates the country’s founding. In 1777, sailors accused the commander of the Continental Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, of torturing captured British sailors, and petitioned the Continental Congress to remove him. Hopkins sued for criminal libel, and Congress — by unanimous vote — agreed to defend the sailors in the suit. Congress also passed a law requiring all military members to inform Congress of “misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers in the service of these states.”
Many of the most important heroes in American history were, technically, traitors, including the Founding Fathers. And knowingly so. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, “We must hang together or we will hang separately.”