The term whistleblowing is thought to be derived from the police tradition of many decades ago of blowing their whistles to summon more police when they witnessed a crime being committed. Those were the days when a police beat was patrolled on foot. Now whistleblowing means calling attention to, and/or the disclosure of wrongdoing in any organization — public or private.
Hailed as both a patriot and a traitor, Edward Snowden will long live in the annals of notorious government whistleblowers. Many advocates of privacy and civil rights regard him as heroic and courageous. Government officials, large segments of the media and a substantial portion of public opinion denounce him as the whistleblower who most damaged his country's national security.
Snowden, who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency, downloaded and stole countless classified documents from the intelligence agency's computers and leaked thousands of them to the media.
U.S. intelligence agencies and Pentagon officials claimed the leaks would cost untold damage to the nation's security and require millions of dollars and years to repair.
Snowden says he was driven mainly by conscience to disclose the NSA's secrets. He was interviewed and quoted at length in the May 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, apparently using the magazine to tell his side of the story and to justify his actions.
"When you are in a position of privileged access you see things that may be disturbing," Snowden said. "Over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up."
The wrongdoing Snowden was referring to was the NSA's surreptitious and illegal surveillance of American citizens, including their phone calls, emails and Internet use.
Snowden also revealed that the NSA was spying on top-level officials of foreign governments, among them German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and I saw the Constitution was violated on a massive scale," Snowden said. That constitutional violation, according to Snowden, was the NSA's domestic spying.
Snowden's actions immediately ignited a debate between the imperatives of national security and a U.S. citizen's right to privacy.
"There's a limit to the amount of incivility and inequality and inhumanity that each individual can tolerate; I crossed that line," Snowden said.
The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees who disclose wrongdoing, fraud, waste, mismanagement or other malfeasance. No retaliatory action may be taken against such whistleblowers. Additional whistleblower protections have since been added including a Presidential Policy Directive issued by President Barack Obama in 2012, protecting government employees of intelligence agencies.
But, of course, the law does not protect employees of the federal government who leak secret documents. Despite Snowden's claim to be defending the U.S. Constitution, he has been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with espionage. If he is tried and convicted of espionage, he would face a long-term sentence in a federal prison.
One highly placed military intelligence officer reportedly thinks Snowden may be a spy for some foreign country, most likely Russia or China.
Snowden's leak is not unprecedented. There have been other government employee whistleblowers. A previous massive disclosure of government secrets occurred in 2010 when a website called WikiLeaks ran classified documents stolen by U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning. The site, operated by Australian Julian Assange, was notorious for posting government secrets. Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence for espionage. Assange lives in London's Ecuador Embassy, where he sought political asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden where he faces a sexual assault charge.
But not since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971 has there been a more controversial unauthorized disclosure of secret government documents.
Ellsberg was a RAND corporation analyst who had access to a secret U.S. government report of some 7,000 pages detailing American relations with Vietnam, formerly French Indochina, from 1945 to 1967. Ellsberg, an opponent of the Vietnam War was charged with 12 different felonies, all of which were dismissed in 1973.
Both Snowden and Ellsberg were seemingly motivated by ethical impulses and apparently ignored the potential consequences of their actions. Other equally well-meaning people, many presumably also ethically concerned, decried these violations of the law. A dilemma for public sector whistleblowers is that sometimes the disclosure of what they perceive as wrongdoing may be a criminal act, i.e., revealing classified documents, proprietary information or clandestine activities.
Private sector whistleblowers in publicly traded companies are also protected. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002and the Private Sector Whistleblower Protection Streamlining Act of 2012 both prohibit any retaliatory action by an employer against a whistleblower employee for disclosing wrongdoing.
Among the more newsworthy private sector whistleblowers is Sherron Watkins, a former vice president of corporate development at the now-defunct Houston energy firm Enron who made national headlines in 2001 and 2002. Watkins was an internal whistleblower who wrote a memo to Enron's CEO, Ken Lay, warning of accounting fraud at the firm. She later testified publicly before the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
In 2002, Time magazine named Watkins one of its three "Persons of the Year," along with Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom and Colleen Rowley of the FBI, tagging the trio "The Whistleblowers" in an issue of the publication devoted to that theme. Cooper was vice president of internal audit at the firm and led an investigation, which revealed that WorldCom had perpetrated the largest accounting fraud in U.S. corporate history. Rowley was an FBI special agent and disclosed endemic problems at the bureau and in the intelligence community.
To guarantee the anonymity of whistleblowers and tipsters, many news publications maintain websites or other methods whereby information about wrongdoing may be revealed without attribution to a specific source.
Among several not-for-profit organizations protecting whistleblowers, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is one of the largest. Founded in 1977, the GAP is a non-partisan public-interest group which litigates whistleblower cases, helps expose wrongdoing to the public and actively promotes government and corporate accountability, according to its website. The organization says it has helped more than 5,000 whistleblowers since it was founded.
The GAP lists four ways to blow the whistle:
- "Reporting wrongdoing or a violation of the law to the proper authorities, such as a supervisor, a hotline or an Inspector General.
- Refusing to participate in workplace wrongdoing.
- Testifying in a legal proceeding.
- Leaking evidence of wrongdoing to the media."
But a major ethical dilemma faces potential whistleblowers: loyalty to their employers, or to customers if they're outside vendors, service providers or consultants, whether to government, business, academia, the press or other institutions.
Ethicists and people of conscience, however, recognize a higher loyalty – the imperative to call attention to wrongdoing for purposes of a higher good. A potential problem is the definition of higher good; people of conscience may disagree on what that means.
When several reporters for The Washington Post and Britain's Guardian newspaper were co-recipients of the Pulitzer Prize this year for their articles based on Snowden's leaked information, Snowden claimed the prize vindicated his actions.
Snowden is now living in Russia under a temporary but renewable grant of asylum, a fugitive from American justice. Ironically, he has said that he does not want to live in a country that spies on its citizens. Yet the Russian government is notorious for domestic surveillance.
Snowden still retains hundreds of thousands of top-secret NSA documents stored in laptop computers and thumb drives. U.S. intelligence agencies are worried that Snowden will continue to leak secrets to the world's media, further damaging U.S. national security.
Meanwhile, the ethical debate between national security, a citizen's right to privacy and where an American citizen's loyalties properly belong continues.