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What We Mean When We Say 'Whistleblower'

Edward Snowden, seen during a video interview with
Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras
Edward Snowden, seen during a video interview with

When Edward Snowden came out as the source of leaks about the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, he was immediately labeled a whistleblower by many.

Is the term a misnomer?

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, took to Twitter on Sunday to question the media's use of "whistleblower" to describe Snowden. (Note: NPR was among the numerous organizations using the word.)


Haass expanded on his comment in another tweet, defining a whistleblower as a "person who reveals wrongdoing, corruption, illegal activity. none of this applies here even if you oppose [U.S. government] policy."

Haass makes a distinction between revealing corruption and exposing a policy you disagree with. One makes you a whistleblower -- the other does not, he argues.

James Fallows of The Atlantic blurs that line. He wrote Sunday:

"That these programs are legal -- unlike the Nixon 'Plumbers' operation, unlike various CIA assassination programs, unlike other objects of various whistle-blower revelations over the years -- is the most important fact about them. They're being carried out in 'our' name, ours as Americans, even though most of us have had no idea of what they entailed. The debate on the limits of the security-state is long overdue, and Edward Snowden has played an important role in hastening its onset."

Snowden, in his video interview with the Guardian, says the need for public debate was what pushed him to expose the NSA monitoring.


"Eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not somebody who was simply hired by the government," he said, noting that "the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong."

BuzzFeed reports that when Snowden's identity was revealed, "the tweets calling him a hero outweighed those calling him a traitor nearly 30-1, according to data from Topsy."

Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who's been writing about the leaks, called Snowden a whistleblower in his interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos even before the 29-year-old ex-CIA worker's identity became public (h/t Jay Rosen).

"Every time there's a whistleblower, somebody who exposes government wrongdoing, the tactic of the government is to try and demonize them as a traitor," Greenwald says, adding:

"They risk their careers and their lives and their liberty because what they were seeing being done in secret, inside of the United States government is so alarming and so pernicious that they simply want one thing, and that is for the American people at least to learn about what this massive spying apparatus is and what the capabilities are so that we can have an open, honest debate."

Of course, the fact that the NSA programs have been kept under wraps does not mean they're illegal. Current and former U.S. officials insist the programs are lawful and justified.

For a more technical definition of whistleblower, let's turn to the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which advocates on their behalf. Here's how the organization defines a whistleblower, using state, federal and international cases:

"An employee who discloses information that s/he reasonably believes is evidence of illegality, gross waste or fraud, mismanagement, abuse of power, general wrongdoing, or a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. Typically, whistleblowers speak out to parties that can influence and rectify the situation. These parties include the media, organizational managers, hotlines, or Congressional members/staff, to name a few."

Whistleblowers are recognized and protected under the law, to an extent. PBS's POV documentary series has a timeline up to 2010 on whistleblowers, including congressional enactment of the False Claims Act, which offers financial incentives "to uncover fraud harmful to the government."

But a spokesman for the Justice Department told ProPublica in May that legal protection for whistleblowers applies only to those who follow designated channels, particularly in regard to classified information. That essentially means anyone who violates those procedures wouldn't be considered a whistleblower by the U.S. government.

"We cannot sanction or condone federal employees who knowingly and willfully disclose classified information to the media or others not entitled to receive such information," the statement reads.

ProPublica's report in May outlines what it calls the Obama administration's "crackdown" on national security leaks, despite federal efforts to enhance whistleblower protections.

Protected or not, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg told CNN that "I would have done just what [Snowden's] done" had he seen the same NSA information. Snowden, he said, has done "an enormous service" to American democracy.

Ellsberg, who was one of the first people prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, also said he has "no doubt that this [NSA program] violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and probably other parts of the Bill of Rights."

Courts inevitably will be called to rule on the matter someday. Until then, whatever alarm Snowden sounded -- whistle or not -- has stirred a rousing debate.

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