The global blockbuster thriller of our government's hunt for Edward Snowden (the man who informed us that Big Brother has secretly expanded its reach beyond our most pessimistic expectations) has pushed my mind into the territory I usually try to block out - the silent knowledge of wrongdoings, the discouragement of honesty, and the plight of whistleblowers.
Most people don't realize that the largest professional group exposed to secrets, transgressions, misdeeds, and abuses of power is us, the corporate accountants of different levels - from junior clerks to CFOs. We are on the front lines of dealing with numbers and money, which are the subjects (and the reasons) of most violations one encounters in business.
Daily we witness and, as our job descriptions demand, participate in the tweaking of performance numbers, breaches of contracts, violations of tax code, systematic bribing, manipulation of truths during negotiations, scheming, and what have you. Most of this mendacity, especially in the private sector, is not really that significant in its magnitude. And no matter how high on the corporate ladder, we are just employees attending to our jobs. Many of us cannot even do anything about it - not only because we need our paychecks, but also because we are legally bound to be liars and conspirators by means of non-disclosure agreements and implied fiduciary duties.
Some of our employers, however, are just 100% pure scum, constantly skirting the edges of real frauds. At first glance, they present appreciative and earnest facades: something is wrong with their business and they want to hire you to straighten it all out. Then, as soon as you make the first probing incision, such foul stink and puss comes out, you are stunned with disbelief: There is an appropriation of nearly $1 million that belongs to a major corporate client, the devaluation of a $28-million private equity investment, unpaid payroll taxes, and unreported taxable income. Eventually these criminals swindle you (i.e. me) personally out of a large chunk of money too.
Yes, I sincerely considered to report them to various regulatory agencies and injured parties as well as to sue them myself. First, I sought legal advice. The attorney was eager to proceed, but had enough decency in him to paint a realistic picture for me. "Look," he said, "they will sue you on all possible grounds. It will cost you at least $50-$60K in legal fees. They will pour buckets of dirt on you. Their lawyers will be ripping you apart at every deposition. You will have to live through this for at least 5 years and the outcome is unknown. But let's fucking do it!" With that in mind, I called one old-timer I know. Two decades ago, as a CFO of a public company, he sued his employer for fraud and lived through all the consequences of his actions, including a revocation of his CPA license and his wife's heart attack. His advise was laconic: "Don't do it!" So, I didn't do anything.
Then again, some frauds are terrifyingly large and affect a lot of people. Uncovering them has a potential of creating public scandals and attracting media attention to the whistleblowers. Both WorldCom and Enron were brought down by female career accountants: the first one by Cynthia Cooper, VP of Internal Audit, who first spent years building her resume at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte & Touche; the second by Sherron Watkins, VP of Corporate Development and Arthur Andersen alumnae. (The cynic in me cannot completely believe in the pure righteousness of these women. There could've been some sort of grudge they held against their employers, which were run predominantly by male execs.)
While both Cooper and Watkins shared their 15-minutes of fame and public applause as Time's "People of the Year 2002," their carefully crafted top-tier accounting careers were over. No large or mid-size company will hire an executive with a whistleblowing history. And accounting firms? That's the funny part: even though both women acted in accordance with the ethical code imposed on them by their CPA licenses, they rendered themselves practically unemployable in a public accounting sector. Both published books about their experiences (well, we've already discussed the rewards of such endeavors) and now give speeches in colleges and high schools.
Still, it could've been worse: if any corporate remnants of WorldCom and Enron have survived, I'm sure Cooper and Watkins would've been sued by their respective former employers on all kinds of legal grounds and ended up losing much more than their careers. And this is what makes the governments and their agencies the scariest targets of the whistleblowing: while their individual employees may be shuffled around and even removed, the institutions don't go anywhere; no matter what, they retain their power to harm.
Try scrolling through Wikipedia's List of Whistleblowers - it gives you a pretty good idea about bleak plights that befell the people who publicly unveiled secrets of their government employers (FBI, State Department, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, CIA, EPA, US Army). The stories are pretty gloomy: professional licenses challenged, people fired, discharged, accused, extradited, prosecuted, indicted, sentenced, found with two bullets in the head.
This is all public knowledge. Obviously, Edward Snowden was aware of these possibilities. Moreover, he was also prepared to fight against them. Whether he succeeds at protecting himself or not, the fact remains that he took the responsibility for disclosing to the Guardian and the Washington Post a certain set of classified information, including a secret court order forcing Verizon to yield clients' telephone records as well as the existence of PRISM - the program that allows National Security Agency's analysts to access servers at Microsoft, Google, Apple, and other Internet firms with the purpose of extracting customers' (yours and mine) audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and other materials.
Apparently, ever since the Snowden ordeal started, the sales of 1984 got a tremendous boost (it's presently #62 on Amazon's Bestsellers list and #8 among Fiction Classics). Well, good for George Orwell's estate. But, truth be told, even he couldn't cook up a plot this thick. At least the residents of Airstrip One knew that they were always watched; they were aware of what kind of behavior could result in repercussions. We, on the other hand, have been kept completely clueless.
It has always been a position of the Labor Department that there is no Right to Privacy in a workplace: whatever we say or write at work is opened to our employers. Now, thanks to Mr. Snowden, we have learned that everything we say or write in our own home became secretly opened to the government - our very own government, which, like a bad parent, thinks that it knows what's best for us. Perversely they believe that they "represent our interests," without even asking what we think about it, basically reducing us to the level of retarded children.
And it seems that we are just scratching the surface with Snowden's revelations. Check out the news of the police departments' unregulated photo scanners: Police License Plate Scanners.
According to the numerous Internet pundits, the Obama administration holds a record for prosecuting the largest number of whistleblowers. Obviously, this government is very sensitive about the secrecy of its operations: "the enemy cannot know." Does that include us, the US patriots? Is it OK for us to be treated as one with the enemy for the sake of the "larger good?"
Well, Machiavelli's famous maxim "The end justifies the means" was a favorite and much-repeated slogan of the Soviet mass murders Lenin and Stalin. But our founding father Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one."
And here is what the Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International had to say about the hunt for Edward Snowden: "No one should be charged under any law for disclosing information of human rights violations by the US government. Such disclosures are protected under the rights to information and freedom of expression."
YES, that's what we used to believe. Yet, this alarming news had an immediate impact on me: I thought REAL HARD before finally deciding to write this post.