Before You Blow the Whistle:
by Rick Brenner
When organizations become aware of negligence, miscalculations, failures, wrongdoing, or legal infractions, they often try to conceal the bad news. People who disagree with the concealment activity sometimes decide to reveal what the organization is trying to hide. Here's Part II of our catalog of methods used to suppress the truth.
Professor Brian Kelley, retired CIA officer, speaking at The Institute of World Politics to students, faculty, and friends, on the "story behind the story" of the investigation of former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviet and Russian intelligence services from 1979 to 2001. For years, Prof. Kelley himself had been the prime suspect in a series of incidents that were actually the work of Hanssen's espionage. In November of 1998, investigators attempted to trap Kelley using a disinformation tactic. They had a man with a foreign accent come to Kelley's door and warn him that the FBI knew he was a spy. The man told him to go to a specific Metro station the next day to escape. The strategy was designed to prove Kelley's guilt by trapping him into trying to escape. Kelley instead reported the incident to the FBI, but that didn't ease the investigators' suspicions. Kelley and his family were interrogated and he was put on administrative leave for almost two years, ending only with Hanssen's arrest based on evidence obtained elsewhere. Photo courtesy The Institute of World Politics.
Shredding documents, destroying or recycling hard drives, and altering records are examples of destroying evidence of what the organization is concealing. Even when evidence destruction is the primary concealment strategy, it's effective only if all evidence is destroyed or rendered unobtainable.
The testimony of witnesses is one kind of evidence that cannot be destroyed as long as the witnesses are able to bear witness. Testimony can be prevented by intimidation, brutality, bribery, and other means, but if prevention fails, what then? From the concealer's perspective, two techniques can be effective even if the whistleblower blows the whistle.
- Indirect personal attacks
- Most whistleblowers anticipate direct personal attacks, but personal attacks can be directed at loved ones, too. Children, spouses, parents, siblings — all are potential targets. Spouses can be seduced. Legal, emotional, financial, marital, or other difficulties of close family members can be exposed and used to discredit or apply pressure to whistleblowers.
- If you already know of vulnerabilities of this kind, consider carefully how to protect yourself. Finding employment elsewhere is not protection from those who fear exposure. If the organization or its employees believe that you might someday become a problem, they might preemptively destroy your credibility in advance of any action you might take, no matter where you go for your next job or assignment. Effective protection usually involves convincing them of your ability to do more damage to them than they can do to you. That strategy often requires assembling evidence and seeking professional assistance.
- Direct disinformation
- Employees not directly implicated Finding employment elsewhere
is not protection from
those who fear exposurein the concealed activity (or inactivity) are potential candidate whistleblowers, because they often feel — justifiably or not — that they haven't themselves transgressed. From the perspective of those directly involved, even candidate whistleblowers constitute risk. To limit risk, false information of a seemingly incriminating nature is sometimes made available to them. Passing along this disinformation to investigators or media could then damage the whistleblower's credibility.
- Don't assume that everything you think you know about the concealed activity is actually true. Be especially careful about material that came to you too easily, or uncorroborated, or which had a "stage-managed" feel. If you suspect that you've received disinformation, interpret it as an indicator that you're being targeted proactively as a potential whistleblower. That could mean that the organization, or individuals within it, have taken other actions as well, such as investigating you or your family members, or tampering with your work products or records. When you do pass along information to counsel, investigators, or media, be careful to indicate whether you suspect that any of it is disinformation intentionally passed along to you.
These tactics are rarely obvious. Intuition and good judgment are required. Trust the Force, Luke. First in this series Top Next Issue
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