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Whistleblowing in Science

Last week, the Guardian published several articles revealing an extensive, intrusive monitoring program hosted by the National Security Administration. Apparently, the NSA has required cell service provider Verizon to hand over huge troves of data covering all of its customers — data including call times, call recipients, and the length of conversations.

Edward Snowden, NSA Whistle Blower.
Image Credit: The Guardian
The source of the top-secret information remained anonymous at first but revealed himself yesterday as Edward Snowden, an IT contractor working for the NSA.

Snowden's revelations has galvanized many U.S. citizens to rally against the NSA's program, and Snowden has surely made some new enemies working for U.S. intelligence agencies. As of yesterday, Snowden's future remained uncertain while he stayed in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong.

In light of Snowden's actions, I decided to look back at two curious whistleblowing cases from the world of science: one involving a clandestine nuclear program and the other surrounding biotechnology price-fixing.

Case 1: Israel's Secret Nuclear Program

Mordechai Vanunu (center) from 2005.
Image Credit: Ali Kazak 9
Although experts suspected that Israel may have been producing nuclear weapons since the 1960's, no one knew for sure until a nuclear technician blew the whistle on Israel's secret program. To this day, Israel maintains a policy of nuclear ambiguity — neither admitting to or denying the existence of such a weapons program.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, Mordechai Vanunu worked as a nuclear technician in Israel, but he was eventually laid off in 1985. After speaking with a freelance journalist while traveling abroad, Vanunu eventually granted an interview to a Sunday Times journalist. Vanunu detailed his experiences working on the nuclear weapons program and even provided images of the site where he worked.

Vanunu told the Times the rate at which Israel could produce refined plutonium, leading experts to believe Israel may have over 100 nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

Shortly thereafter, Israeli agents concocted a plan to retrieve Vanunu. At the time, Vanunu was on British soil, and Israel didn't want to risk damaging foreign relations by kidnapping Vanunu. Instead, they used a female agent to seduce Vanunu and convince him to vacation in Rome where he was eventually captured.

After returning to Israel, Vanunu stood trial and was convicted to 18 years in prison. He was released in 2004.

Case 2: The Informant!

Image Credit: Warner Bros
Fast forward to the 1990's for another tale of whistle blowing — this time in the world of biotechnology and food processing.

You may know about the story of Mark Whitacre from the popular 2009 film titled The Informant! Whitacre was a PhD scientist (he studied biotechnology) who worked for global food processing firm Archers Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990's.

From 1992 to 1995, Whitacre acted as an FBI informant during an investigation into a global price-fixing scheme. The investigation eventually revealed that ADM had conspired with Japanese and Korean companies to fix the price of an animal feed additive called lysine.

Meanwhile, Whitacre was also embezzling millions of dollars from ADM — all while the FBI was working with him on the unrelated price-fixing case. Whitacre eventually admitted to his wrongdoing, pleaded guilty to tax fraud, and spent eight years in prison.

If you haven't seen The Informant! yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. Whitacre, who was played by Matt Damon in the movie, comes off as one of the most intriguing characters in the world of whistle blowing. That may change, however, as more is revealed about Edward Snowden.


  1. Please catch up on Vanunu's ongoing struggle for his RIGHT to leave Israel and view his most recent YouTube: 3D imagery of Israel's 7 story underground WMD facility that utilized his photos from 1985 and first broadcast by Israeli TV in 2004:

    PS: I began a series of interviews with Vanunu in 2005 during my first of 7 trips to both sides of The Wall.

    Vanunu was not laid off-he quit and traveled around with the undeveloped film for 10 months.

    You can learn lots about Vanunu's childhood, crisis' of faith and identity and US collusion in Israel's Nuclear 'Ambiguity' DECEPTIONS here:


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