Recently, a 21-year-old made the news for all the wrong reasons. After the military learned that someone had leaked classified documents touching on the war in Ukraine, authorities quickly launched a hunt. They found Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. He had allegedly abused his access to top secret documents to share classified information on a Discord server.
As NPR reports, Teixeira now faces two criminal charges. One for illegally sharing sensitive information. A second for illegally taking classified documents. His case reminds us that illegal leaks can endanger lives across the globe. But some leaks can also save lives. This begs the question: How does someone legally blow the whistle about classified activities?
Whistleblowing is an American tradition
The history of American whistleblowers predates the Constitution. Whistleblowers have played an important role throughout the nation’s growth and evolution. These heroic whistleblowers include people like Julius Chambers and Rachel Carson. Chambers drew attention to the abuses in New York’s insane asylums. And Carson alerted the public to the dangers of DDT.
Some other notable whistleblowers include military personnel who shared truths the military would have rather kept quiet:
- Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven brought an end to the torture of British POWs in 1777. We do not like to think of the United States as a nation that embraces torture, but without these two men, our story might have been quite different.
- In 1933, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler exposed a secret plot to overthrow Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
- In 1969, Hugh Thompson, Jr. and Ronald Ridenhour both told officials about the U.S. massacre of Vietnamese civilians in My Lai. Thompson’s report up the chain of command led to further coverups. Ridenhour’s reports to Congress helped fan the widespread antiwar sentiment that led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
- Daniel Ellsberg’s disclosure of a classified government study contributed heavily to the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes, “Ellsberg’s act proved several administrations had directly lied to Congress and the public about their intentions and actions in Vietnam.”
These are just a handful of examples, but they show how important whistleblowers have been to the development of our nation. They have upheld the truth in opposition to military officials and U.S. Presidents. And lawmakers have recognized the importance of their contributions by ensuring that whistleblowers can continue to help keep our nation honest.
However, if whistleblowers want to keep their legal protections, they need to follow the rules.
The rules for classified disclosures
In case it wasn’t clear, military personnel may not disclose government secrets in the Discord groups they create and moderate. Instead, military personnel may report concerning military secrets according to the rules set forth by 10 U.S. Code § 1034. These provide several possible targets for classified reports:
- Members of Congress, including Senators, Representatives, their staff and congressional committees
- Inspectors General, including the Inspector General of the Department of Defense (DoD) and officers or employees who are serving as Inspectors General at any level of the DoD
- Members of an appropriate law enforcement agency
- Up the chain of command
- To anyone authorized to receive such communications
It’s important to note that the law bans people from restricting any lawful communication between military members and members of Congress or the Inspector General. Communications with the other targets may only be protected when the whistleblowers have good reason to believe that they have evidence of certain abuses, including:
- Illegal activities
- Gross mismanagement
- Gross negligence
- Serious personal threats
- Serious threats to public health or safety
When military personnel follow the rules, the law protects them from retaliation. Sadly, this doesn’t always mean that whistleblowers won’t experience retaliation, but it does give them the legal standing to seek justice for any illegal retaliation.
The long story made short
Recent news has focused on the damage caused by military leaks and the punishments likely to follow. However, whistleblowers have long helped keep our nation on the right track. You just need to follow the rules. When you do, you can help bring important changes and uphold your legal protections.