Why Edward Snowden Is the Definition of a Whistleblower

The verdict on Snowden is in.

David Sirota

'Is he is or is he not a whistleblower?' (Abode of Chaos/Flickr/Creative Commons).

For months, a debate over Edward Snowden’s status has raged. In the back and forth, one question about this icon who disclosed NSA abuses has dominated: Is he or is he not a whistleblower with all the attendant protections that should come with such a designation?

The ruling proves his disclosures have exposed far-reaching crimes. It adds to an entire (and growing) body of evidence proving that Snowden's disclosures blew the whistle on criminality by the NSA and top officials.

As of this week’s federal court ruling saying the NSA’s data collection programs are probably unconstitutional, that debate is finally over. After all, if the most basic definition of a government whistleblower is one who uncovers illegal or unconstitutional acts, then the ruling proves Snowden is the dictionary definition of a whistleblower.

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Of course, there still remains a cottage industry of tough-talking saber rattlers slamming Snowden not merely for being in a foreign country, but more revealingly, for the disclosures themselves. These demagogues often invoke the age-old law-and-order cliches about classified information. Yet, based on what we now know, their criticism of Snowden actually puts them on the side of those who are systemically violating the very laws and constitution, which they purport to love.

To see that, you can behold this week’s court ruling that proves Snowden’s disclosures didn’t, to paraphrase his detractors, just expose legal-but-troubling behavior or programs that were already public. If the disclosures only did that, then sure — it might be fair to deny him whistleblower status. But the ruling proves his disclosures have exposed far-reaching crimes. Just as important, the ruling is not an isolated incident – on the contrary, it adds to an entire (and growing) body of evidence proving that Snowden’s disclosures blew the whistle on criminality by the NSA and top officials. Among that body of evidence are the following facts:

  • As The New York Times reported, in 2011 a federal court found that the (NSA) had violated the Constitution and declared the problems part of a pattern of misrepresentation by agency officials in submissions to the secret court.” The Times notes that one of the examples cited by the court was an NSA program that keeps logs of all domestic phone calls … which came to light in June as a result of leaks by Mr. Snowden.”
  • Reporting on records of a secret government audit provided by Snowden, The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency has broken privacy rules or overstepped its legal authority thousands of times each year since Congress granted the agency broad new powers in 2008.”
  • Snowden’s disclosures proved that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress when he denied the NSA was collecting data about Americans. As Obama administration prosecutors in the Roger Clemens trial would tell you, lying to Congress is a crime. In Clapper’s case, his potentially criminal lying was so blatant that even the Republican author of the Patriot Act has called for him to be prosecuted. Snowden’s disclosures provide the basis for such prosecution.

Now sure, the opinion-based speculation about Snowden’s social status — is he a narcissist or a hero? is he unpatriotic or a patriot? — can and will continue. But from a legal perspective, this former NSA contractor is clearly a whistleblower – one entitled to the most basic whistleblower protections. If those protections are not properly outlined in federal law, then Snowden’s acts should prompt whistleblower law to be reformed and strengthened. That’s the least he deserves. 

He certainly does not deserve the ire directed at him. At the very minimum, he does not deserve to have House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers publicly offer to help extrajudicially execute him with a drone strike (yes, that really happened). 

What he really deserves, though, is a nation’s thanks for exposing — and hopefully halting — the violations of civil liberties happening in our midst.

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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