The So-Called ‘Whistleblower Organizations’: Munchausen by Proxy

By Professor William Weaver


In the syndrome Munchausen by proxy, parents inflict injuries on their children to put themselves in the position of rescuer in nursing them back to health. It is done to gain attention, sympathy, or for other reasons of personal satisfaction. The well-being of the child is sacrificed to the parents’ desires for attention, even though the parents represent themselves as selflessly devoted to the health and safety of the children under their control.

Something similar occurs in the relationship between government oversight organizations and their prize whistleblowers. I say "prize" whistleblowers because it is rare indeed for whistleblowers applying for help from oversight organizations to receive a response, much less aid. Member after member of the National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC) relates how oversight organizations fail to respond to their inquiries, and when there is a reply it is usually an explanation that the organization is too busy saving other people to help out. But those whistleblowers who are deemed "prizes," the ones who have attracted media attention or plainly promise to do so, are paraded up and down the pages of the media and self-congratulatory publications by the organizations involved. Like the parents with Munchausen by proxy use their children, these organizations use whistleblowers to gain attention. They use this attention to aid in fund raising, to pander their image to the public, and to keep a steady steam of whistleblowers applying for help.

Most important to maintenance of control is that these oversight organizations demand sole power to speak for the whistleblowers, that whistleblowers are presented to the public in the way the organization wishes them to be seen. Whistleblowers are forced to be a "story" rather than a person; a story that advances the goals of the organization often times at the expense of the whistleblower. And once the brief foray into public light is over, whistleblowers are left behind by these organizations in their rush to the next media prize to help keep organizational funding coming in and to keep fresh their fevered self-glorification. Led on by false hope, whistleblowers are trapped between abuse by vengeful administrators and exploitation by those they turn to for help.

When times are bad, they are good for these organizations. When travesty is aplenty, the crop of media martyrs is bountiful. The more hopeless the outlook, the more cruel the treatment of employees by government administrators, the more successful the fund drives and chest-beating false bravado of the organizations. These organizations are part of a co-dependency that has misery and continuation of the conditions that give rise to whistleblowers as its fuel. They have developed entrenched and deep relationships with government agencies and members of Congress that result in a complicated waltz of agreed ineffectiveness. It is in the interest of all parties involved, except of course the whistleblowers, to never accomplish anything in terms of reform. The agencies don’t have to submit to greater oversight, the oversight organizations have an endless supply of "causes" to help fill their coffers, and Congress need not make difficult decisions.

What makes this perverted cycle of misery almost unbearable for me is that the "ill children" these organizations pretend to treat are remarkable people. My experience with the NSWBC has put me in contact with people who are extraordinary patriots with keen senses of dignity and integrity. Our members average nearly twenty years of government service; they are experienced, skilled, and wise in the ways of government agencies. They stand up for truth, for the citizens of our country, and for our democracy. Their reward is agency retaliation, destroyed careers, loss of friends and family, and enormous expense. Compounding these injuries are exploitation at the hands of the people whistleblowers turn to for help.

The NSWBC is unpopular with the organizations whistleblowers turn to. Some of this unpopularity comes from tensions associated with a new organization plying an area that has traditionally had few participants. But the real revulsion for NSWBC is that it is run by, and exclusively comprised of, whistleblowers. It gives an unmediated voice to those who have directly suffered the harm of retaliation in the national security workplace. This is an affront to traditional organizations in the area and threatens their conveyor-belt stream of whistleblowers to be exploited and wrung out for all they can provide the organization.

In the last three decades, nothing has been done to protect national security whistleblowers, yet these organizations claim they have been in the midst of a great struggle on behalf of whistleblowers. The NSWBC has been around for eighteen months, and in that short time it has certainly made a mark. For example, recently a bill was unanimously reported out of the House Committee on Government Reform that would give protection, substantive protection, to national security whistleblowers. This milestone was accomplished by the NSWBC working in concert with Committee Chairman Tom Davis and senior member of the Committee Henry Waxman. The bill was also spurred on by a hearing before the Subcommittee on National Security, chaired by Representative Christopher Shays. The bill has many hurdles to clear, but this is an unprecedented event.

The bill was reported out in great part because whistleblowers spoke to the Committee in first person accounts, unmediated by "helpful" organizations. These whistleblowers helped Representatives Davis, Waxman, and Shays see the damage that is done to the nation and to the government by not protecting those who report waste, fraud, and abuse in federal agencies. True to form, though, after the bill was reported out of committee, the Government Accountability Project distributed a press release implying that it had some major role in the formulation of the bill. Again, an organization moved in to attempt to deprive whistleblowers of their own voice, of any credit for defending themselves; the sick children must be put back in their place.

The NSWBC empowers its members by giving them a means to focus their voices through an organization. Administrators rely on isolation of whistleblowers, on their inability to hook up with each other and to be more than just scattered "stories." The NSWBC helps members translate their voices into policy, into workable reforms, into effective measures for countering government malfeasance. While traditional oversight organizations are busy looking for the next whistleblower to throw on the conveyor belt, we would be happy if the reasons for NSWBC’s existence would disappear; in fact we strive for that result.


William G. Weaver, J.D., Ph.D.

Senior Advisor-NSWBC