Edward Snowden NSA: Is the CIA Employee a "Leaker" or "Whistle-blower"?


Right now Edward Snowden is hiding in a hotel room somewhere in Hong Kong. He’s stuffing pillows under his door to prevent eavesdropping and covering his laptop when he enters passwords. In the 21 days he’s been away, he has only left his room three times. These behaviors might seem extreme, but for somebody who disclosed information about the world’s most secretive organization — the NSA — anything else would be cursory. 

Edward Snowden, like Bradley Manning and Daniel Ellsberg before him, revealed abuse by a government agency in spite of extreme personal safety risks. A hero to some, a traitor to others, Snowden has been described in various terms — whistle-blower, leaker, source — and each word choice has an implication as to whether or not the 29-year-old CIA employee has done something wrong.  

Snowden has been deemed a “whistle-blower” by the Guardian and Fox News, “a source” by the Washington Post and CNN, and “a leaker” by the Associated Press, New York Times and NPR. The difference between these terms is not entirely arbitrary and Snowden should be considered a whistle-blower, not a leaker.   

“Leaker” might have a derogatory nature to it according to Jesslyn Radack, the director of the national security and human rights program at the Government Accountability Project, whereas whistle-blower implies that the information leaked was beneficial to the public. Radack claims that “source” is the “most neutral term. 

A whistle-blower is an “informant who exposes wrongdoing within an organization in the hope of stopping it,” according to this definition, which leaves Snowden's status open for interpretation: Whether or not the NSA committed a transgression depends on whether you are an ACLU member or James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence who has no problem with the NSA’s behavior. Furthermore, the agency’s actions are not illegal

However, a broader definition of whistle-blower found on the Government Accountability Project’s website reads: 

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, whistle-blowers 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.

Snowden embodies this definition; he believes the NSA behavior is an abuse of power and thus he sought out media exposure to redress the problem. 

The Guardian columnist at the forefront of this story agrees, claiming

“I don’t think “whistle-blower” requires revelation of illegal conduct ... 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.”  

Whether or not the NSA’s behavior is illegal, Snowden has revealed a massive abuse by a government agency, and he has done so as a whistle-blower.