updated 6/6/2005 3:16:27 PM ET 2005-06-06T19:16:27

Becoming a whistle-blower is one of the loneliest and most difficult choices one can make in life. Those who come clean on the wrongdoing they witness in the corporate suite or in government risk immediate ostracism. They open themselves up to counterattacks, loss of livelihood, and sometimes long, costly litigation, just for the act of speaking out against a perceived injustice or crime. And even when their disclosures are revealed to be true, they often have a difficult time finding work again, as potential employers fear they can't be trusted.

All of which makes the spate of splashy whistle-blowing cases in recent years remarkable indeed. Former Big Tobacco exec Jeffrey Wigand spilled the beans about what the industry knew and when, rousing the ire of cigarette giants. (His story was so dramatic, Hollywood made a movie, The Insider, about it.)

Sherron Watkins famously — and futilely — warned former Enron CEO and Chairman Ken Lay about the energy giant's financial house of cards. Watkins, persona non grata at Enron after writing her memo, left several months later. Since then, she has co-authored a book, Power Failure, and does consulting and gives lectures.

Now out of sight
FBI agent Coleen Rowley wrote about intelligence failures leading to 9/11 — now she's mulling a run for Congress. Army Private Joseph M. Darby stepped forward after seeing the now-notorious pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib. He was recently given the Kennedy Library Foundation's Profile in Courage Award by Caroline Kennedy for "upholding the rule of law that we embrace as a nation." But he and his family have largely dropped out of sight.

It was a still-anonymous tipster who informed New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer about insurance kickbacks, setting off a chain of events that left the industry reeling — and former AIG CEO Henry Greenberg, an icon of the business, in disgrace. What fate awaits the tipster when his or her identity is revealed?

Yet, when it comes to whistle-blowing, none of them comes close to Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat, the recently revealed source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein unravel the Presidential scandal Watergate — and the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

Hero or traitor?
Whistle-blowing is a funny thing: For every person who thinks it's noble, someone else thinks such a break in ranks is the ultimate disloyalty. Indeed, look at the reaction to the revelation about Felt. Some praise him as a hero. Others — most vociferously and not suprisingly, former members of the Nixon Administration — are now calling him a traitor.

Patrick Buchanan, a former Nixon speechwriter, was quoted in The New York Times on June 2 as saying, "I think Deep Throat is a dishonorable man. I think Mark behaved treacherously. I'm unable to see the nobility of the enterprise, sneaking around in garages, moving pots around, handing over material he got in the course of the investigation."

With the "final secret" — in the words of former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee — now broken, it's worth looking back at the granddaddy of all whistle-blowers and see what lessons can be learned:

Follow the money: That was the advice Deep Throat gave Bernstein and Woodward, and the money trail was one of the things that led them to the White House. In corporate scandals, it's usually all about money, and often the cash leads to the very top as well — with a few stops along the way, at various high-ranking executives' offices. In her memo to Enron's Lay, Watkins raised pointed questions about aggressive accounting. She was following the money.

Cover your tracks: According to Woodward, Felt was adamant about not talking on the phone, and he insisted on meeting in underground garages, communicating through an elaborate series of signals that involved moving a flower pot and flag on Woodward's apartment balcony, and a hand-drawn clock in Woodward's copy of The New York Times. And according to Woodward and Bernstein, Felt was careful in what he said to them, mindful not to break the law.

Clearly, such subterfuge helped keep Felt's identity secret — and his job at the FBI — safe, which presumably kept him in the loop and enabled him to be a long-term asset to the investigation. And Felt was smart, but he was also very lucky that his identity wasn't revealed sooner. Just witness the fury now aimed at a 91-year-old man in frail health.

Better yet, don't leave any tracks: It's interesting to wonder how Felt, a old-fashioned G-man right down to his wool-checkered blazers and fedora, might have inadvertently spilled the beans in this age of e-mail, security cameras, and corporate computer networks. It's hard enough not to leave a paper trail, much less a digital trail. On the bright side, it's also harder for the bad guys to cover their tracks these days. Spitzer, for one, has shown how modern prosecutors can make amazingly strong cases out of e-mail trails.

One person can make a difference: It's tempting to be cynical and think an individual can't take on a corporation like Enron or an institution like the military or the White House. Watkins' warning was for naught — at least in terms of preventing a problem. But her actions and information were critical in helping to shed light afterward on the mess at Enron, which in part centered on such specious accounting schemes and vehicles as Raptor and Condor.

But one person isn't enough: To be effective, a whistle-blower has to find the right conduit. And chances are good it might not be someone the whistle-blower trusts in the next cubicle or in the office down the hall. For all the criticism leveled at Felt for not following "procedure" and not bringing his concerns to his superiors at the FBI or the Justice Dept., it's hard to imagine that going to FBI Director L. Patrick Gray — Nixon's hand-picked choice for the job — about illegality at the White House really would have been a great idea.

Make sure your confidante is trustworthy: No doubt The Washington Post was deeply chagrined at having been scooped by Vanity Fair on the story it's famous for. Yet Woodward — who still works for the Post — and Bernstein were right to honor the pledge they made to keep Felt's identity a secret until his death or his releasing them from their promise. Kudos also to former editor Bradlee, the only other person privy at the time to Deep Throat's identity. Laws protecting whistle-blowers are imperfect at best. If someone goes to the press, they should feel safe doing so.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing": So wrote 18th century Irish philosopher and politician Edmund Burke. O.K., so he excluded "women" from that phrase, but considering when he lived, he can be forgiven. However, include both genders, and his wisdom shines brightly still.

When good men and women do something true and right, evil is sometimes vanquished. That's the highest ideal that a whistle-blower can aspire to, even if others may question his or her motives. Critics think Felt's motives were less than pure. He never hid his disdain for Nixon and his minions, whom he regarded as "Nazis," Woodward revealed in the Post's June 2 editions. Felt was also passed over for the FBI director's job twice. But he did what he thought was right.

Perhaps Woodward and Bernstein would have untangled the gnarly mess of Watergate without Felt's help. Maybe someone else would have come forward to reveal the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib if Darby hadn't. Rowley wasn't the only person in the FBI, let along elsewhere, to point out the intelligence failures surrounding 9/11. Had Wigand lost heart, another exec might have told the truth about the tobacco industry.

But as any historian will tell you, such speculation — while fun — ultimately leads to a futile dead end. We'll never know. What's important is what did happen. Felt, and many whistle-blowers after him, made a difference. But first, they made a choice.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved.


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