What exactly is a whistleblower?

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A member of the audience holds a copy of the Whistle-Blower Complaint letter sent to Senate and House Intelligence Committees during testimony by Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KELO) — Federal whistleblowing has been part of the fabric of America since its beginning. The first law was passed in 1778, just two years after the Declaration of Independence.

It was after the story of a U.S. Navy leader accused of torturing British protesters, according to the National Whistleblower Center.

Two men reported the issue.

The Navy leader put them in jail and Congress stepped in. The False Claims Act was a first of its kind in the world, according to the NWC.

The modern whistleblowing law was passed in 1989.

Essentially, a whistleblower is a public servant in the federal government who reports waste, fraud or abuse. That person is given special protection by the government against retaliation.

Throughout the federal government, reports are made to the Office of Special Counsel.

That didn’t happen in the report that has led to the impeachment proceedings in the U.S. House. There is a different track for reports in the intelligence community.

Bruce Fong is the associate special counsel for investigation and prosecution. His office oversees a majority of the federal whistleblowing cases.

“OSC plays a special role in encouraging federal employees to come forward with information that they may have that might reveal waste, fraud and abuse in the government,” Fong said in a video to federal employees. “And OSC plays a special role in protecting those employees when they come forward.”

An example of a federal whistleblowing complaint can be found even in South Dakota. In a May 2019 letter to President Donald Trump, the Office of Special Counsel writes that a child welfare specialist in the Burau of Indian Affairs at Fort Thompson, South Dakota, had improperly placed children in mental health treatment facilities and failed to perform mental health evaluations.

“You want to protect the integrity of the whistleblower process,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said in an interview with KELOLAND.com. “It’s there for a reason.”

Thune said transparency is important, but also acknowledges certain conversations have intelligence sensitivities or national security implications.

Thune spoke to KELOLAND News before the whistleblower complaint was made public.

In the interview, the Senate majority whip said he wanted to wait for more facts to be released, but spoke about protecting the whistleblower.

“Ultimately, you don’t expose them in a way you discourage future whistleblowers from using that statute to draw attention to bad things that are happening in government agencies,” Thune said.