The life of a whistleblower appears to be a lonely one. I imagine that nobody knows that better, right now, than Edward Snowden.
Snowden, as you surely know, is a former contractor with the American National Security Agency (NSA) and a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In June, he turned over to the news media documents revealing a massive, widespread and top-secret NSA program to compile telephone records and other online communications data ostensibly in the cause of antiterrorism and counterintelligence.
Since he made the revelations of the NSA’s covert program of harvesting information, Snowden has been on the run. He was in Hong Kong at the time of his disclosures and, soon after, flew to Moscow.
As of the last I heard, he was still in the Moscow airport, arranging for asylum in countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. I wonder what he plans to do if and when he reaches one of those countries – is there a big demand in South America for people who seek to reveal their government’s secrets?
Snowden’s stay in a foreign airport reminds of a Tom Hanks movie, “Terminal”, in which he played a man who became trapped in a New York City airport when he was denied entry into the U.S. (but also couldn’t return home). That movie, I gather, was partially inspired by an actual 17-year-stay of a man in the Paris airport terminal.
Snowden said, of his leaks, that they were an effort “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” He also stated, “The public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.”
Snowden demonstrated his recognition of the likely ramifications of his conduct when he stated, “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions, and that the return of this information to the public marks my end.” But, he also said, “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
Over a period of time in both dealing with, and learning of, employment situations in which an employee becomes a whistleblower, I’ve wondered about the reaction they tend to get. My general feeling is that we should welcome and salute the courage of these people but I haven’t observed that to be the case.
The organization (whether social, corporate, or political) on which the whistle is blown seemingly always reacts with hostility. The first tendency seems to be to try to discredit and isolate the whistleblower, to turn him or her into a pariah.
That’s perhaps not too surprising (though nonetheless regrettable). A truth of human behavior seems to be that when our personal status quo, our source of stability, is threatened we react negatively regardless of the legitimacy of the threat.
Snowden was quickly charged by U.S. federal prosecutors with espionage and theft of government property. Government officials have called his actions reckless and characterized him as a traitor, likely in an effort to keep the focus on him and off the legality of the NSA’s surveillance programs.
As a society, the reaction may be somewhat less hostile but it’s not exactly one of embracing the whistleblower. It’s as if (to me, anyway) the whistleblower is in the position of being presumed guilty (or wacko) until proven innocent.
There is plainly a level of conflict in the collective mind of the public when it comes to the actions of people like Snowden. Time magazine published the results of its poll on this topic – the results are intriguing and demonstrate our challenge in assessing these situations.
Time’s poll showed that 54% of respondents felt Snowden did a “good thing” by informing the public of the NSA surveillance. But 53% of respondents felt that the U.S. government should prosecute such people.
63% of respondents feared that the U.S. government will “misuse” the information collected by the NSA, but 48% of respondents approved of the government’s “collecting of phone records, emails and internet search records”.
Those numbers demonstrate uncertainty among the public about the right and wrong of actions such as Snowden’s and about what (if anything) should be done with him as a result. It’s apparent that Americans have mixed feelings on this subject.
Maybe, though laws in places like British Columbia have evolved to protect whistleblowers against retaliation, the old schoolyard refrain, “nobody likes a squealer”, takes priority. Whatever the reason, people like Edward Snowden likely must resign themselves to a life of isolation and loneliness.
Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, operating Smithson Employment Law. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca.