Whistleblowers detail experiences at Newhouse panel Wednesday night

The Government Accountability Project brought the American Whistleblower Tour to Syracuse with a panel of three whisteblowers.

At a panel on whistleblowing and journalism Wednesday night at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, the audience heard from some of the panelists how blowing the whistle can often come at great personal cost.

Syracuse University teamed with the Government Accountability Project to bring three whistleblowing activists to discuss their experiences as whistleblowers or working with whistleblowers. The panel came to Newhouse as a part of GAP’s American Whistleblower Tour.

Roy Gutterman, an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, moderated the panel, which consisted of GAP President Louis Clark, whistleblower Thomas Tamm, and freelance journalist and whistleblower Kristina Borjesson.

During the discussion, each panelist discussed the roles they played in whistleblowing as well as the important role that the press plays in enabling whistleblowers and preserving democracy. They stressed the continued importance of those roles in the context of the Obama administration, which has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any previous administration.

Each panelist had a different experience with whistleblowing, but Tamm and Borjesson both faced personal consequences for their actions.

Tamm, who blew the whistle on warrantless National Security Agency spying in 2005, essentially lost his job because he leaked to The New York Times. He had to leave a job he loved. His colleagues would no longer speak to him. His brother, who worked for the FBI, thought that he deserved to go to jail.

Tamm came home one day, Aug. 1, 2007, to find that 18 federal agents had raided his home to seize evidence against him. They took his computers and even took his family’s Christmas card list. He nearly declared bankruptcy due to the cost of lawyers to defend himself.

Tamm regretted what he put his family through, but he was sure he hadn't broken any laws and was certain that the government was lying and breaking the law. “I’m not ashamed of what I did…but it took an incredible personal toll,” Tamm said. “I always regret what I put my family through, but there are people for whom the truth is more important.”

After The New York Times published the story, then-President George W. Bush condemned the story, but admitted that the spying had occurred. Tamm did not fear a trial as he felt he was right, but was happy when the FBI returned his things three months ago, indicating that he would not be charged.

Borjesson was so discouraged in the initial stages of what would become whistleblowing that she nearly gave up on journalism, she said. On July 17, 1996, Trans World Airlines Flight 800, only a few minutes after leaving John F. Kennedy International Airport, exploded out of the air, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean and killing all 230 passengers aboard.

Borjesson was put on the story. Later, she accepted a piece of debris from an investigating scientist who said the material was fuel from a missile. A few weeks later, the FBI came to her office at CBS and demanded what it claimed was stolen debris. The FBI took the evidence and CBS fired her shortly thereafter.

Years later, she teamed up with investigators of the accident to create “TWA Flight 800,” a documentary in which the crash investigators show forensic evidence that contradicted the official story of mechanical failure. Playing this activist role outside of what she saw as a handcuffed and timid press “makes me a pariah,” she said. “And I’m willing to live with that.”

Satoshi Sugiyama, a freshman newspaper and online journalism major, found the panel eye-opening. “When you look at…how those traditional media failed to achieve their objectives, to deliver a comprehensive report…and the attitude not to challenge authority, I found it despicable...Being able to learn these things was incredible. At the same time, it made me further affirm my conviction in pursuing my journalism career,” he said.

Though the disclosure cost Tamm a lot, he said in an interview after the panel, that it enabled him to meet people who thought like he did and that he would do it again. “Ultimately, it’s been difficult, but it was worth it…I think we’re losing our right to privacy and it’s something worth fighting for.”

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