Shooting the Messenger: The Challenge of National Security Whistleblowing

With Michael Joseph and Michael Poznansky.

Abstract: Whistleblowers play an integral role in oversight. In almost every employment sector, organizational insiders who come forward to expose alleged wrongdoing are protected from retaliation. In contrast, national security whistleblowers face steep fines and jail sentences for coming forward. Why? We argue that the difficulty of verifying allegations of wrongdoing in the national security arena make it hard to condition rewards and punishments on the veracity of whistleblowers’ claims. In such cases, harsh punishments prove effective for encouraging honest whistleblowing. We use mechanism design to build these claims and investigate the implications through an analysis of proposed reforms to whistleblower protection laws in the United States over the last 40 years. We also report data from elite interviews with real-world whistleblowers using interview techniques designed to test the mechanisms of formal models. This article contributes to the study of whistleblowing, disclosure dilemmas, and oversight in the covert sphere.

Forthcoming, Journal of Politics. Click here to download.