Whistleblowers Have Long History In U.S. Whistleblowing dates back to the nation's earliest days. It's been a risky and controversial exercise ever since.

'Whistleblowing Is Really In Our DNA': A History Of Reporting Wrongdoing

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NOEL KING, HOST:

OK. Now to political turmoil in this country. House Democrats are starting an impeachment inquiry into the president. This all started with a whistleblower, an unidentified person inside the national security community. Whistleblowing has a long history in this country, and NPR's Brian Naylor looked into it and brought us this.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Whistleblowers date back to the nation's earliest days. Allison Stanger, a professor at Middlebury College, has just written a book called "Whistleblowers."

ALLISON STANGER: Americans passed the world's first whistleblower protection law in 1787. So we're a leader in this realm, and whistleblowing is really in our DNA. So that's why this particular moment is so interesting.

NAYLOR: Stanger says the first whistleblowers reported on the actions of one Esek Hopkins in the late 1780s.

STANGER: He was the first commodore of the U.S. Navy, and they blew the whistle on him ostensibly for torturing British prisoners of war. He was removed from his post. He tried to retaliate against the whistleblowers, who were thrown in jail, and then Congress intervened to protect the whistleblower.

NAYLOR: Whistleblowers have been reporting wrongdoing in government institutions ever since, but it's always been risky.

DAVID COLAPINTO: Whistleblowing is a career-limiting phenomenon in the federal workforce. That's why a lot of people don't do it.

NAYLOR: David Colapinto is an attorney who represents whistleblowers. He's also a founder of the National Whistleblower Center. Colapinto says the Whistleblowers Protection Enhancement Act allows workers to report to members of Congress wrongdoing they see in their agencies. But if your job is in national security, there are different rules.

COLAPINTO: If you work in the intelligence community, you must bring your concern to the inspector general before you can go to Congress. So if you work at HUD, you can go right to your member of Congress or the committee that has jurisdiction over housing and report your concern. Those are two major differences as we're seeing play out.

NAYLOR: The whistleblower who reportedly became concerned about conversations President Trump had with the president of Ukraine went through proper channels by reporting his or her concerns to the intelligence community's inspector general, says Colapinto. The IG deemed it an urgent concern and reported it to the acting director of national intelligence, who is, under law, supposed to submit it to Congress. But that's when things broke down. Kel McClanahan, director of National Security Counselors, says the DNI has no authority to insert himself into the middle of the process.

KEL MCCLANAHAN: He is basically sending a message to all whistleblowers that the path that you fought so hard to get is still not going to work. And there's nothing you can do about it. And that sends a very dangerous message because it - basically in this world, you either protect all whistleblowers or you protect none.

NAYLOR: President Trump has attacked the whistleblower that reportedly complained about him as, in Trump's words, a partisan person who carried out a political hack job. But McClanahan says the whistleblower statute specifically leaves out political disagreement from its definition of urgent concern. And he says the consequences for whistleblowers can be severe.

MCCLANAHAN: Members of the intelligence community are constantly told not to go outside the family. They're told that they can be prosecuted. They're told that they can have their clearances removed.

NAYLOR: And that means they won't be able to get another federal job. But for a whistleblower who believes they're protecting something bigger, it may be worth the risk. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version of this report, Allison Stanger misspeaks. The first whistleblower protection law was passed in 1778, not 1787.]

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