Tattletales and snitches are objects of opprobrium, in high society and low. People generally dislike folks who tell on others. But whistleblowers have a different image. They are perceived as heroic because they sacrifice themselves for a higher purpose — stopping government misconduct or preventing corporate misdeeds. We don’t treat them as heroes, however. I’ve counseled some in my law practice, and they usually have paid a great price for their sacrificial behavior. Whistleblowers are subjects of glorifying movies, but I share their pain. Few have launched successful careers after their “heroic” acts.

The Dec. 22, 2008 Newsweek cover story about Thomas Tamm’s excruciating experiences deciding to and eventually disclosing the federal government’s warrantless wiretapping practices is a classic example of the whistleblower’s dilemma. Tamm is not a flaming liberal critic of government. He is a product of it — the son of a high-ranking FBI official and member of a family invested in law enforcement and, as Newsweek reported, “a least likely suspect” to be a national security leaker. When he tried to remedy what he saw as illegal activities by law enforcement officers, Tamm was told, “Don’t go there.” Others knew what was going on, but feared to act.

Tamm decided he had no option except to go to the press, and that he did. Washington works on the basis of an unofficial partnership between the press and government under which anonymous sources provide investigative reporters with inside information. They are protected as unidentified confidential sources. We see this every day in news stories. Tamm was discovered, his home was raided, property taken. Friends and family have been interrogated. He is out of work and facing the steep cost of defending himself. He lives in limbo now, hoping to be vindicated for serious national security crimes.

One man’s act of selfless heroism is another’s seditious disloyalty. The line between right and wrong, between criminal acts and heroic ones, is thin, the Newsweek article concludes. But that line ought to be bright and clear and protected better than it currently is. Currently, crime sometimes pays, but whistleblowing generally self-destructs. Our society has a vested interested in a better reality. The press moves on, even wins prizes, sometimes; but the leaker often swings in the wind.

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