Some members of Congress and Secretary of State John F. Kerry say Snowden has betrayed his country. Whistleblower advocates acknowledge that he might have committed a crime, yet they firmly identify Snowden as a whistleblower.
This presents a dilemma.
Whistleblower advocates have a long history of supporting federal employees and others who expose waste, fraud and abuse. They don’t encourage breaking the law. Yet, in Snowden’s case, they see two possible wrongdoers: Snowden, for revealing government secrets; and Uncle Sam, for the massive surveillance program Snowden exposed.
“There must be a strong prohibition against the government using its classification powers to classify a criminal action as ‘secret,’ ” said Stephen M. Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center.
Advocates frame Snowden’s conduct in a context larger than his potential criminal liability. The Government Accountability Project (GAP), a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, said that “his actions alone brought about the long-overdue national debate about the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other. Charging Snowden with espionage is yet another effort to retaliate against those who criticize the overreach of U.S. intelligence agencies under this administration.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a strong supporter of whistleblowers, has a different take. She “knows there’s a difference between someone who stumbles upon government wrongdoing and someone who knowingly commits a crime and violates our national security — and may even have set out to do so,” said Drew Pusateri, her spokesman.
Federal employee whistleblowers, generally, have certain protections against retaliation for exposing abuse. National security contractors have few, if any. But even if the protections available to others covered Snowden, how could he be afforded those protections if he has broken the law? The government’s retaliation would be his arrest and possible conviction on espionage charges.
“Mr. Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance are certainly whistleblowing, but releasing classified information is also against the law,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “As was the case with Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, sometimes it is so important to make the information public that it is necessary to break the law. . . . Whenever a whistleblower illegally discloses classified information, the public interest must be weighed against the harm to our national security.”