Why Whistleblowing Isn't That Simple 

Martin Werner

Opposing Opinions

Knowledge is Power

The Case for Edward Snowden

Ethan Wallace

December 13th, 2016

A recent movie followed the story of the troubled young hero, Edward Snowden, in his struggles to save the world. That is, disregarding the fact that Snowden did not save the world, violated laws directed towards him, and endangered the United States in his attempt. Those who watched Snowden and/or think Edward Snowden should be allowed safe passage back into the United States should rethink their case. Although some “whistleblowers” might be entitled to protection, the heroic character we see in portrayed in Snowden is one that we cannot, and should not, guarantee asylum.


I would like to begin by acknowledging the fact that I believe whistleblowing is a sacred part of our government, and many attempts at corruption have been thwarted by the process. Just this June, Brian Shields called out Genentech Inc. and OSI Pharmaceuticals LLC for providing inaccurate and detrimentally misleading information about their lung cancer drug Tarceva. Shields did this under a provision of the False Claims Act; he blew the whistle using a process dictated by a federal law. Without these provisions and the protections that apply to Shields, certain violations or threats would never come to light before some consequence is effected.


Yet when it comes to Snowden, these provisions do not apply - and for good reason. When it comes to justifiable whistleblowers, we look at the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. This act prohibits any agency from taking action against someone who discloses information regarding the violation of a law, abuse of authority or funds, or threats to public health/safety. Now you or another may think Snowden’s disclosed information could classify as a threat to public safety, and you are entitled to that opinion. I will not disagree with you. However, the Whistleblower Protection Act does not apply to Snowden because of his involvement with federal intelligence agencies, and therefore cannot be used to argue his case. A separate act passed in 1998, the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA), sets a certain procedure for members of Department of Defense intelligence agencies (which includes the NSA) that wish to blow their whistle. Snowden both leaked the NSA’s information and was himself a former member of the NSA; Therefore, only the ICWPA applies to him.


When Snowden leaked his information, he ignored the ICWPA and instead leaked classified information behind the NSA’s back. This classified information posed an extreme threat to the United States and its soldiers; still, whether or not you believe that Edward Snowden was in fact a hero, even if we analyze his actions under the original Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, he is no whistleblower and therefore does not deserve the protections directed towards actual whistleblowers.


The WPA and the ICWPA establish extensive protections for whistleblowers all around. In 2012, another act was passed into law (the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act) which gives further protections to whistleblowers. For example, this act extended protections to the TSA. True whistleblowers are heavily protected, and continue to bring corruption to light--but Edward Snowden is no true whistleblower.

By now, most of America knows the story of Edward Snowden, the contractor for the NSA who released thousands of classified documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, and subsequently caused the greatest intelligence leak in modern history. The documents revealed that the NSA was illegally spying on American citizens through surveillance operatives. Today, Snowden faces charges of violating the espionage act in the US, and currently resides in Moscow. Furthermore, his disclosure, coupled with public pressures, have led to reforms being made in the way the NSA operates. Snowden himself said in an interview with The Guardian that “without these revelations, we would be worse off.” Critics of Snowden’s actions say that he gave foreign enemies access to confidential surveillance activities. However, one can be assured that the positive consequences are prevalent.


Protections for whistleblowers, especially those working in the federal intelligence sector, are an important part of our American democracy. Without the ability for employees to bring illegal actions, abuses of power, or moral injustices to light without fear of repercussion, the people for whom federal intelligence programs operate are left in the dark on the issue of their own privacy. If Snowden had followed the 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, he would have been forced to contact the Inspector General at the NSA or certain intelligence committees at Congress. However, he had a good reason not to. As stated on the official Edward Snowden website, Snowden’s revelations would likely have remained secret as he would “only have been able to present complaints that the law deems of ‘urgent concern’ to Congress.” Snowden believes that had he gone to Congress, they would have sided with the NSA and opted to keep the documents classified. In addition to this, Snowden also believes that the injustice he witnessed is something that “should be determined by the public.” So, Snowden opted to break the Espionage act and go behind the back of the United States government in leaking the documents in the name of justice.


While Snowden may have broken the ICWPA, he is still protected from retaliation by his employer for his report of these abuses of power under Barack Obama’s 2012 Presidential Policy Directive 19, which sought to extend the protections of the 1998 Whistleblower Protection Act to those in the intelligence community, as well as the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act with the same goals. Unfortunately, when he broke the Espionage Act, he overrode all of these protections, ultimately making him a felon.


It is hard to argue that Snowden’s actions were a terrible thing. While he may have broken the law, he did so in the hopes that justice would prevail. Furthermore, because of his transgressions, new reformations have been made so that the NSA would now work for its people, not against it.  Snowden believes that he was justified in what he did, not only in breaking the Espionage Act, but also in exposing crimes committed by the US government.