Are whistle-blowers heroes or rats? Traitors or patriots? Brave or naïve? Exemplars of moral courage or attention-seeking media hounds?
In the past two weeks, Edward Snowden has come forward to acknowledge his role in releasing top secret documents concerning surveillance of U.S. and foreign citizens by the U.S. government. The case has served as a Rorschach test for observers’ projections of what constitutes heroism in our society. A quick Google search or scan of Twitter feeds reads like a series of playground taunts.
“He’s a hero!”
What accounts for the ambiguity about heroism and the intensity of disagreement? On the surface, Snowden’s actions fit with common definitions of moral courage:
- Accepting challenges that put one’s “reputation, emotional well-being, self-esteem or other characteristics” in jeopardy (Moral Courage by Rushworth Kidder)
- Having “the capacity to overcome the fear of shame and humiliation in order to admit one’s mistakes, to confess a wrong, to reject evil conformity, to renounce injustice, and also to defy immoral or imprudent orders” (The Mystery of Courage by William Ian Miller)
Snowden’s decision to reveal the surveillance program represents a classic truth-vs.-loyalty dilemma in which promises of confidentiality are challenged by the gravity of certain secrets and the pressure to reveal them. If Snowden’s case is emblematic of moral courage in the face of a right-vs.-right dilemma, why is this situation so controversial?
Let’s examine Snowden in light of common whistle-blower critiques.
The Whistle-blower’s Motivations Are Suspect
Whistle-blowers whose actions seem driven by personal animus (e.g., “the disgruntled employee”) often are discredited on the basis of impure motives. Bradley Manning, now on trial for disclosing war footage and diplomatic cables through WikiLeaks, has been derided as unstable and embittered by his treatment in the Army. To date, Snowden’s work history reveals no suggestions that he fits these categories or was driven by animus against the government or the employer.
Is he a spy? Former vice president Dick Cheney has questioned Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong and implied that his acts might be the result of an affiliation with a foreign government such as China. Is it not clear if Cheney’s insinuation is based on data about nefarious motives or whether it represents a campaign to discredit Snowden’s act by casting it as immoral and illegal.
Whistle-blowers also can be marginalized when they are believed to acting in self-interest. These “benefits” might include monetary rewards, special dispensation, or plea agreements for informants in criminal cases. News reports indicate no apparent rewards for Snowden’s leak. In fact, the punishments are manifest. In the time that I have been writing this column, Edward Snowden has been charged by federal prosecutors with espionage and theft of government property.
For his part, Snowden denies altruism. “What I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.”
The Whistle-Blower Went About It The Wrong Way
In his critique of Snowden’s heroism, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer compared Snowden to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., but criticized his flight to Hong Kong as unwillingness to face the consequences of his actions. A contrasting view might suggest that his openness to public identification, jeopardizing his relationships, and turning his back on his career and country are in fact consequences that he has accepted freely, not acts of cowardice.
Others would suggest that widespread distribution of classified data is irresponsible and risky. If concerns exist, this reasoning goes, would-be whistle-blowers should use their chains of command to seek change. Unfortunately, the literature on scandals is replete with examples of earnest change agents whose efforts to work within the system were stymied, mocked, punished, or white-washed. As Ellsberg notes, “the information about unconstitutional activity that he put out could only be reversed or stopped if the public knows about it, and there was absolutely no way for them or most members of Congress to learn about it without him putting it out.”
The Whistle-Blower Created Greater Harms Than He Prevented
This argument would submit that openness is acceptable for some issues (e.g., shoddy products, bigoted TV hosts, manipulation of financial markets) but not for matters of national security. Similar complaints are tied to the Manning/WikiLeaks case. Specifically:
- The release of classified documents assists enemies of the United States by informing them of governmental activities.
- Surveillance programs and military campaigns are approved and monitored by elected officials. These checks and balances will ensure that they are conducted properly.
- Secret programs keep the United States safe. Leaks jeopardize those programs and put the country at risk of terrorist attacks.
We Don’t Like Whistle-blowers
Snitches get stitches. Don’t be a tattle tale. Go along to get along. These and other aphorisms capture the cultural ambivalence about whistle-blowing. Polls on the Snowden case indicate that most citizens oppose government phone monitoring, but a majority also favors prosecution of Snowden. There are differences in these numbers depending on the demographic sub-group polled and the way poll questions were framed, but they reveal the duality of reactions to acts of moral courage: People are glad for the act of courage though they may not rush to support the actor.