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November 14, 2016

Ethics of Whistleblowing

By Sam Provance

This article is not that informative in the light of what can be known, but serves as a point of discussion into people's possible intent and purpose in what is commonly celebrated or demonized about "whistle-blowing", using my observations and experience from Abu Ghraib as an example.


This article is not that informative in the light of what can be known, but serves as a point of discussion into people's possible intent and purpose in what is commonly celebrated or demonized about "whistle-blowing", using my observations and experience from Abu Ghraib as an example.

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I am considered as a once upon a time "whistle-blower", which is defined as, "one who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority". I personally don't consider myself a whistle-blower, at times having even hating the term, but I do fill those shoes nonetheless, and have become intimately acquainted with the whistle-blowing experience.

Unfortunately, I was the only military intelligence soldier to cooperate with the investigation into detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib Prison, known most for scandalous photographs of soldiers abusing detainees during the Iraq War in 2003. This fact was made known to me when the initial classified report was purposely "leaked" to the public. But I didn't decide to go to the media against specific orders until I believed the investigations were deliberately looking in the wrong place, allowing the greater perpetrators and wrongdoing to go, at the very least, unnoticed.

To many people I am a vaunted hero, and others, a treasonous villain. Usually this is determined by what perspective a person has chosen to take beforehand, based on what they may or may not know about what I said, who I spoke to, what I did, and when"as well as political, professional, and personal interests.

As one quickly learns, it becomes quite a complicated web of words, actions, motives, opinions, convictions, and consequences. Another example of what is known in the intelligence field as, "the wilderness of mirrors".


"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing." - Albert Einstein

Conscience -- "the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good".

One of the main reasons I chose to "blow the whistle", was a matter of conscience. When the exposure from the investigations led to a literal global media scandal, I assumed others more knowledgeable would naturally come forward, no doubt prodded by their own conscience, the fear of getting found out before confessing, or the consequences for withholding testimony. But it wasn't all. The silence was deafening and maddening.

As the days and weeks intensely rolled by, I had to make a monumental, potentially life changing (and threatening) choice. Either speak up now to someone outside "the system" and risk everything, or keep silent forever.

My initial thoughts were of the accused, that were from my perspective being 'scapegoated' ("one that bears the blame for others"), waiting in their detention, hoping desperately someone like me would come forward in their defense.

More importantly was the weight of knowing that if the wrongs done weren't held accountable in some way, many more innocent Iraqi people would suffer as a result. Several reports found between 70-90% of those detained were later found to be completely innocent, and for most of them, being incarcerated alone meant losing their home, possessions, and even families. A fact I already knew on the ground.

Stopping Wrong and Evil -- The other main reason I chose to willingly disobey the gag order imposed by my superiors, was an effort to, quite frankly, stop the insanity. Obviously the innocent detainees are in mind when I say this, but this also includes the welfare of my fellow soldiers involved in these interrogations, as well as the integrity of our mission itself.

By submitting innocents to "enhanced interrogation techniques" (which some like myself consider forms of torture, such as starvation, sleep deprivation, and sensory manipulation--and this is the mild stuff), we were creating enemies that beforehand did not exist--and for absolutely no credible reason.


"If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge." - William Shakespeare

Revenge - Joe Darby, the soldier who's whistle-blowing only consisted of handing over to authorities the photographs that were given to him (depicting abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib), is in my opinion and experience, a perfect example of someone intending to do harm for personal reasons (like a disgruntled employee).

According to his first interview after being discharged with GQ magazine, he expressed resentment for his fellow military police soldiers, long before he ever knew of their taking candid pictures of themselves with detainees. When he viewed some of them, I suspect he knew what an impact they might have to someone outside the scope of the operation--as well as their not knowing the context of the photo snaps (many of them were gags or souvenirs--posed for and not in the act as perceived and reported by the media).

He knew what kind of trouble this could cause these soldiers he admittedly despised, regardless of their actions with detainees.

Darby conspired to anonymously submit the photos to CID (Criminal Investigate Division - a military type internal affairs), then watch the drama unfold from the stealth of anonymity. But the drama immediately went out of his control, beyond anything he could have imagined. He didn't realize what he was inadvertently stumbling upon and really threatening to expose--the role of the interrogators, their actions, and the policies that instructed them.

Attention - One of the most popular accusations directed at me was that I did it for the attention--that I was a "media hound" and this was my Andy Warholic "15 minutes of fame". Though I admit it is very exciting to see yourself on prime time television or profiled in national newspapers, that attention soon becomes a burden too great to individually withstand. I ended up in a paranoid and exhausted state where I couldn't eat or sleep.

Some no doubt "speak out" for the benefits of attention. Like when I was to speak at a peace activist event in New Jersey, October 2006. There I met an Iraq War veteran and political activist. During our conversation, he boasted how being a traveling and outspoken activist had often gotten him a lot of women. I sat absolutely stunned, knowing how such a sentiment and vice stands to discredit everything such a person works for.

Joe Darby didn't expect to be known for his role at Abu Ghraib, but he did quickly assume the attention role provided him by the media. He went on to receive several outlandish accolades for his supposed "courage", which in my opinion, was really for playing his part in the melodrama as it was being suggestively scripted for him.


"Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel." - Bill Clinton

Consequences - Regardless of intent, there are certain consequences inherent in calling attention to the wrongdoings of others. There is the loss of friends in the work place, immediately. They scatter in fear for their own lives. Then comes the paranoia about those friends who remain or that you later befriend in the developing cloak and dagger.

The worry over your future employment then sinks in.

The bridge back to the normal daily life you knew is effectively burned, with anxiety filling your thoughts and emotions as you move into the now unpredictable future.

Family is often the next thing to go, as your spouse and children cannot relate--and sometimes consider you the source of your own problems and theirs, even disagreeing with your motives and actions.

Disillusionment - Some of the darkest moments come when you realize that everything you had once believed in ideally and aligned your life's interest in--were and are now all wrong, and worse, now actually set against you.

The temptation is then to go to the opposite side of what you formerly supported, and is often the respite of most whistle-blowers. Having never been involved in politics, I know I was quickly inundated with support from the Democratic Party almost immediately (such as former Vice President Al Gore quoting me in a political speech just days after my ABC News interview). I embraced this support, which saved me on many levels.


"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." -- Mark Twain

On a personal note, contrary to popular perception of events, I went on to not only be honorably discharged from 8 years of active service in the US Army in 2006, but I actually enlisted years later in the US Army Reserves, where I've served since 2010, and earned my lost sergeant stripes back.

I went back to Church after being an avid anti-Christian most of my adult life.

I went back to the college I dropped out of in 1997 and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2013.

I remarried that same year and got custody of my son in 2014.

I have slowly gotten back to where I once belonged. I consider it miraculous, given the history of whistleblowers.

I was once at an activist function, listening to Daniel Ellsberg discussing "The Pentagon Papers". That happened in 1971, yet 40 years later he was still talking about it like it was yesterday. It seemed what defined him. I didn't want Abu Ghraib to be what defined me and 40+ years later still talking about it as such.

Ray McGovern once told me that instead of getting out of the Army because things were bad, maybe I could stay in and be an agent of change. I didn't stay in the Army at the time, but I fought my way back in. I might even eventually retire one day. Imagine that.

There is hope for the whistleblower. It doesn't have to be the end. It can be the start of many new beginnings.

Authors Website:

Authors Bio:

Sam Provance was a military intelligence sergeant known for disobeying orders from his commanders by discussing with the media his experiences at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. He eventually brought his case to the US Government in February 2006, resulting in a Congressional subpoena of the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. For his sworn testimony to Congress, click here.