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Opinion Edward Snowden: ‘Leaker,’ ‘source’ or ‘whistleblower’?

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The Guardian has little hesitation in categorizing Edward Snowden. In the headline to its story yesterday revealing him as the source of the recent bombshells about the National Security Agency, it calls him “the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations.”

More: “Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world’s most secretive organisations – the NSA.”

The Post sticks with the term “source” in its main piece on Snowden’s coming-out.

A 29-year-old man who says he is a former undercover CIA employee said Sunday that he was the principal source of recent disclosures about ­top-secret National Security Agency programs, exposing himself to possible prosecution in an acknowledgment that had little if any precedent in the long history of U.S. intelligence leaks.

A quick look at the media landscape, bold text added:

Fox News: “NSA whistle-blower who sought to ‘inform the public’ in massive surveillance leak faces decades in jail”

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CNN: “In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the U.S. National Security Agency to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans.”

NPR: “Who Is Edward Snowden, The NSA Leaker?”

The Atlantic: “Meet Edward Snowden, the NSA Whistleblower

Associated Press: “THE LEAKER: A 29-year-old high school dropout who worked for consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton has claimed responsibility for disclosing the programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Snowden told The Guardian that he enlisted in the Army, was dismissed after breaking both legs during a training exercise and later got a job as a security guard at a covert intelligence facility in Maryland.”

The New York Times: “The revelation came after days of speculation that the source behind a series of leaks that have transfixed Washington must have been a high-level official at one of America’s spy agencies. Instead, the leaker is a relatively low-level employee of a giant government contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, that has won billions of dollars in secret government contracts over the past decade, partly by aggressively marketing itself as the premier protector of America’s classified computer infrastructure.”

News organizations’ hesitancy to use “whistleblower” may well derive from the term’s meaning. According to this definition, a whistleblower is an “informant who exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it.” Clearly Snowden was looking to stop something here, but whether it was wrongdoing depends on whether you’re Director of National Intelligence James Clapper or, say, a civil liberties advocate.

The Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that advances “corporate and government accountability by protecting whistleblowers,” has a broader, “composite” definition drawn from “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.

That definition pretty well squares with the take of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist at the forefront of this story. When asked if a whistleblower must be identifying illegal activity or misconduct, Greenwald told the Erik Wemple Blog:

I don’t think “whistleblower” requires revelation of illegal conduct. Dan Ellsberg is considered the classic whistleblower for exposing the systematic lying about the Vietnam War, and that lying wasn’t illegal.
People use the term all the time for those who reveal waste, also not illegal.
I think it involves exposing what the government is hiding because the public would be angry or upset to learn what is being done. That’s clearly the case here. That said, it’s far from certain that the spying in question isn’t illegal. The ACLU has been claiming for years that it’s flagrantly unconstitutional, but the USG has succeeded in blocking any adjudication of that question.

Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post, notes, “No one internally, as far as I know, has suggested we use the term ‘whistleblower.’ I prefer ‘source’ or ‘leaker.'”

Jesslyn Radack, director of the national security and human rights program at the Government Accountability Project, says that “source” is the “most neutral term” and doesn’t much like “leaker.” “There’s a derogatory implication to it,” says Radack, who says she’s represented hundreds of whistleblowers. “I see [Snowden] as a classic whistleblower,” she says. “He is revealing massive abuse and illegality by … the biggest spy agency in the nation and in the world, for that matter.” In some quarters, Radack might encounter some pushback on that last point.

UPDATE 2:00 p.m.: The Associated Press has reviewed its internal guidelines regarding this matter and issues this guidance: “A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It’s not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral. Whether the actions exposed by Snowden and Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point.” In some cases, says the AP, answers as to whether a given person is a whistleblower surface “only after the revelations have sunk in, depending on what wrongdoing is confirmed or how public opinion eventually develops.”