The Perils of Whistleblowing: My Interview With Edward Snowden
Revealing wrongdoing by the powerful requires absolute moral conviction with fearless disregard for consequences.
In 2013, Edward Snowden’s life -- and the world -- changed forever. This former NSA contractor blew the whistle on the agency’s practice of collecting private information and conducting mass surveillance on citizens when he brought evidence to the press and then left the country.
In a video chat moderated by Secret Knock conference organizer Greg S. Reid, I was able to ask him a question directly. "Do you have any regrets?" I asked.
“My mission was never to change the world,” he said. “My mission was to return public information to public hands so you could determine whether things should change.... I regret only that I did not do more -- sooner and bolder."
In part, Snowden hoped his actions would “embolden others to step forward” when they saw wrongdoing. While the majority of us will never be called on to report anything of comparable national or global scale, you may be one day called on to speak up. In a 2011 poll, 45 percent of American workers stated that they had observed wrongdoing in the workplace. Whether you're a business owner or an employee, here are my suggestions, coupled with Snowden's experience, on how to stop being a passive observer and become a safe whistleblower.
1. Make sure you're whistleblowing, not leaking.
The line between a whistleblower and a leaker is fine and hotly debated. The general distinguishing mark tends to be the avenues taken to release information to the public. Whistleblowers are those who follow legally established procedures for exposing wrongdoing; they work within the system, reporting to the proper authorities so that matters can be handled internally. The leaker is one who bypasses the system altogether and goes directly to the press. The former is protected and guided by law; the latter is not.
To this day, Snowden maintains he did everything he could to work within the system. “I still made tremendous efforts to report these programs to co-workers, supervisors, and anyone with the proper clearance who would listen,” he said in a 2014 live Q&A. “The reactions of those I told about the scale of the constitutional violations ranged from deeply concerned to appalled, but no one was willing to risk their jobs, families, and possibly even freedom to go to through what [Thomas] Drake did.”
It was only after facing this internal resistance that he turned to journalists to help get his message out. Even then, he was careful. “As a condition of access to archive, I required journalists to go to the government in advance and tell them what they were going to be writing so the government had a chance for rebuttal,” he said. “In every case, process has been followed.”
2. Get into the whistleblowers' protection program.
For those who would follow Snowden’s example, the single greatest obstacle is fear. Snowden’s colleagues were intimidated by the example of Thomas Drake, former NSA executive who revealed unethical acts committed by the NSA and subsequently endured raids by the FBI and prolonged prosecution. Similar examples are often enough to deter any would-be whistleblower.
The greatest threat to fear is knowledge. Take time to investigate whistleblower protection programs. Research and understand your rights. Identify those groups that can support you while working.
3. Be prepared for the worst.
Protection aside, once you’ve blown the whistle, you’re in for a rough ride. Snowden had no misunderstandings. Though he never intended to end up in Russia, he did expect “to end up in a jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay.” He understood that calling attention would mean an end of his life as he’d been living it. “I realized I had to come forward, light a match, burn my life to the ground if this was really going to work.”
As Snowden’s case has demonstrated, whistleblowing isn’t as simple as identifying a problem and accepting a reward. Be ready for backlash from within and without your organization as you stand by your principles. Since 2009, retaliation has increased 83 percent, while whistleblowing incidents have only increased by 12 percent.
“If you’re not willing to be called bad names, . . . you don’t really believe in anything that much,” he says. “Being criticized is the price of admission for achieving change. The most common thing in the world of politics is that change is never comfortable.”
4. Don’t take bribes.
Intimidation isn’t the only route that businesses and governments will take to silence whistleblowers. Many will offer hush money, effectively turning you from an opponent into an accomplice. Don’t take that risk. Too many examples show when the coverup is revealed, both the company and the silenced party are worse off.
5. Be cautious of hotlines.
On the one hand, hotlines are a powerful asset. Calls are made and recorded are proof the employee has performed their due diligence in reporting wrongdoing.
On the other hand, the hotline is a conflict of interest on the company’s part. In his book, The Whistleblower’s Handbook, Stephen Kohn advises caution. “Hotline programs are under no duty to help whistleblowers,” Kohn writes. “They are voluntary programs, and the nature and extent of their ‘investigations’ are outside of the control of the employee. There is no requirement that these programs offer employees complete or accurate information about their legal rights. In other words, the programs exist for the benefit of the government/corporation; they are not ‘legal service’ programs for whistleblowers.”
6. Stand firm in your convictions.
When asked, Snowden said he only regrets how long it took him to come forward.
“I would do it again,” he said. Despite everything that has happened to him, he believes firmly that the good in the world outweighs the bad. Investigation incited by Snowden’s revelations revealed that the NSA’s mass surveillance tactics had done nothing to stop terror attacks. Despite condemning Snowden’s actions in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for reform within the NSA and Congress. None of that would have happened if Snowden hadn’t taken the risk and come forward.“It’s not enough to believe it,” Snowden says. “If you want to see a better world, you have to stand for something. And you’ll change everything.”