The Morality of Whistleblowing: Patriot vs. Traitor

By: Sahar Sani

Whistleblowing can be defined as “the disclosure by a person, usually an employee in a government agency or private enterprise, to the public or to those in authority, of mismanagement, corruption, illegality, or some other wrongdoing”. This article will explore the morality and ethics of federal whistleblowing, specifically regarding government surveilance, spying, and the invasion of the general public’s privacy. However, it should be noted that in other cases throughout history, whistleblowing has had incredible impact both on the public and in government. Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers during the early 70’s famously led to the end of the Vietnam War. More recent cases include Chelsea Manning’s 2013 leak or Julian Assange’s initial WikiLeaks regarding the Afghanistan War and Guantanamo Bay, which resulted in much public backlash against and denunciation of the government’s actions.

The most well-known case of federal whistleblowing in the United States occurred in 2013, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden released classified information regarding the NSA’s mass surveillance program both within and without the United States. His revelations shook the American public, the American government, and ultimately resounded worldwide.

While some regard whistleblowing as a traitorous or malicious act, others regard it as one that is not only heroic but the height of patriotism. Some see it as an act of treason against the government and the country, while others see it as an act of loyalty to the public, to democracy, and to the law. Transparency on the part of the government is widely recognized as an important component of any functioning democracy; with a lack of transparency comes a lack of trust and thus a lack of safety. When an individual takes the initiative to ensure government transparency and a well-informed public, they are making a choice and taking a risk that will most likely compromise their life as they know it. Many view this as a courageous and selfless sacrifice on the part of the individual, made for the greater good of their country and it’s citizens. 

To fully understand the argument promoting whistleblowing as a most moral and politically ethical action to take, this article focuses specifically on the case of Edward Snowden, and attempts to gain an understanding of how Snowden’s decision making process and actions can be depicted as those of a true patriot, and not a spiteful traitor.

Throughout his career as a computer professional, among other things, Edward Snowden worked as a systems administrator for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a counterintelligence trainer at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), at the private intelligence contractor Dell and finally, in 2013, at the consulting and government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, inside the National Security Agency (NSA) center. Suffice it to say, Snowden was not the “low level analyst”  or “hacker” the government made him out to be.

In June of 2013, Snowden famously leaked information regarding the NSA’s domestic mass surveillance program, detailing their collection of “domestic email and telephone metadata”, revealing the size and span of the governments domestic data collection. His decision to go to the public with the information he had been exposed to through his work as an NSA contractor irrevocably changed his life, changed the average American citizen’s life, and changed American politics, both domestic and foreign, as the scope of the NSA’s spying extend to countries far beyond the United States.

Let us pause and rewind. The National Security Agency (NSA) was established in 1952 by President Truman, and is primarily responsible for “collecting, processing, and disseminating intelligence information from foreign electronic signals for national foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes and to support military operations.” In 1973, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government “must comply with the Fourth Amendment when surveilling an alleged domestic intelligence threat”, further asserting that “The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power. Nor must the fear of unauthorized official eavesdropping deter vigorous citizen dissent and discussion of Government action in private conversation. For private dissent, no less than open public discourse, is essential to our free society.

Between the 70’s and the 2000’s only a few events in the NSA’s history are of note; the NSA once broke the law regarding the warrant requirement for domestic spying. Reforms were made, and the FISA court was established in ‘78. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court was created to uphold the law that governs the surveillance of people in the U.S. to assure that it is only for the purpose of collecting intelligence related to foreign powers. It is conducted entirely in secret.

After 9/11, everything changed. As former NSA analyst J. Kirk Weibe put it, “culture against domestic spying began to shift at the NSA. The prior approach focused on complying with the FISA. The post 9/11 approach was that the NSA would circumvent federal statutes and the Constitution as long as there was some visceral connection to looking for terrorists.” Former NSA analyst and whistleblower William Binney stated that “the individual liberties preserved in the US Constitution were no longer a consideration at the NSA.”

Incredibly quickly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, the NSA launched their domestic mass surveillance (a.k.a. spying) program. A quick sequence of events took place in early October that led to the start of the NSA’s surveillance program: President Bush signed top secret orders regarding the spying program, the NSA believed that this new program gave them permission to forgo  warrants, and the Attorney General approved the program without verifying its legality. By mid-October, the NSA was receiving internet and telephone content information from some of the US’s biggest internet and telephone companies.

What Snowden revealed to the public in 2013 was a phenomenon that was already over a decade old, yet due to the secrecy surrounding it (until 2006, only one of the 11 FISA Court judges even knew the mass surveillance program existed) the world was shocked in a way that still reverberates today.

The first few articles published (by The Washington Post and The Guardian) revealed the NSA’s secret programs, “PRISM” and “Boundless Informant”. “PRISM” allowed the NSA access to millions of American’s Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo account information; “Boundless Informant” allowed the CIA access to metadata from countries all over the world, particularly high profile individuals. The articles also informed the public about a secret court order that demanded that Verizon hand over millions of phone records daily. The Washington Post reported that the NSA was collecting over five billion records of cellphone metadata a day.  Metadata includes “information ranging from location, time, lenth of transmission, and information about other phones a user may try to connect through a voice call or text message. Call data records also include unique identifying information about users and their phones…Swaths of metadata are created each time you use your phone to connect to a mobile network and place a call, check your email or send a text message. Metadata is a powerful concept…” Click here to read the NSA’s internal audit reporting the thousands of times per year in which the NSA broke it’s own privacy rules.


An article published by The Wall Street Journal in August of 2013 asserted that the NSA had “violated privacy rules on nearly 3,000 occasions in a one-year period.” The article, as preposterous as it may seem,  centered around the fact that in some instances NSA officers had utilized their agency’s “enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests”– a practice characterized as “common enough” to “garner it’s own spycraft label: LOVEINT.”

At this point it has been well established that the NSA was engaging in activities that were beyond the limits of the law. All of the leaks surrounding the NSA’s illegal practices or spying were traced to Snowden on June 9th, 2013,  when at his request, The Guardian identified him as their information source. In an interview on June 9th with Glenn Greenwald, Snowden stated “Any analyst, at any time, can target anyone…I, sitting at my desk [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email.

After revealing himself as the source of the leak, Snowden was swiftly fired by Booz Allen Hamilton, the government contracting company he had been working for at the time. Snowden was then charged with “theft”, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person”–essentially, espionage.

While the US government views Snowden as a traitorous spy, he is conversely praised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as “the world’s most well-known whistleblower” and noted for his “deep knowledge of issues around surveillance and civil liberties.”

Snowden compromised his life entirely; he is now trapped in Russia, “physically isolated from his family, friends, and lawyers…and being pursued by the most powerful government in the world. He faces a life of exile or imprisonment.

This brings us to the question the world cannot agree upon: Why did Snowden decide to do what he did? What led him to make the decision to be a whistleblower?

In the interview conducted by Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and strong advocate for individual privacy, and released to the public on June 9th, Greenwald asked Snowden these very questions.

Greenwald: There came some point in time when you crossed this line of thinking about being a  whistleblower to making the choice to actually become a whistleblower. Walk people through that decision making process.

Snowden: When you’re in  positions of privileged access for these intelligence community agencies you’re exposed to a lot more information on a broader scale than the average employee; because of that you see things that may be disturbing. Over the course of a normal person’s career you would only see one or two of these instances. When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis. You recognize that some of these things are actually abuses, and when you talk to people about them in a place like this where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and move on. But, over time, that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it, and the more you talk about it, the more you’re ignored, the more you’re told its not a problem. [This goes on] until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by someone who was simply hired by the government.

Greenwald: One of the extraordinary parts about this episode is that usually whistleblowers do what they do anonymously and take steps to remain anonymous as long as they can, which they hope often is forever. You on the other hand have decided to to do the opposite, declare yourself openly as the person behind these disclosures. Why did you choose to do that?

Snowden: I think the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these kinds of disclosures that are outside of the democratic model.  When you are subverting the power of government, [you’re taking an action that is] fundamentally dangerous to democracy. And if you do that in secret, consistently, as the government does when it wants to benefit from a secret action that it took, it will give it’s officials a mandate– ‘hey, tell the press about this or that so the public is on our side’ but they rarely, if ever, do that when an abuse occurs. That falls to individual citizens but [those individuals are] typically maligned; it becomes ‘these people are against the country or the government.’ But I’m not. I’m no different from anybody else…I’m just another guy who sits there in the office, day to day, watches what’s happening, and goes ‘this is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’

The motivations behind Snowden’s decision are rooted in an ideology based in truth telling, at all costs, and sense of duty to the American public. In response to those who argued that his decision was an act of espionage rooted in mal-intent or personal gain, Snowden frankly dismantled their claims, explaining the risks he was taking by disclosing the information he did, what drove him to leave his comfortable life behind. “You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk…but at the same time you have to make a determination about what is important to you. If living unfreely but comfortably is important to you, if [you realized that the large paycheck you collected] for the easy work [you did] against the public interest… was to create a sort of architecture of oppression, you might be willing to accept any risk so long as the public gets to make their own decisions.”

On a moral level, Snowden opposed the curtailing of internet freedom and individual privacy, but his decision was based on more than his individual values and sense of right and wrong. What the NSA was doing did not only violate the moral and ethical code of a government’s relations with it’s public, it also violated the law as well.

I swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and I witnessed the NSA violating it on a massive scale. I knew what I had to do and I kept my oath. In the wake of these revelations, all three branches now agree that we went too far in creating a secret program to intercept the communications of hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans. Federal courts have ruled the programs I revealed are Orwellian and likely unconstitutional…One White House panel ruled even said that the NSA’s bulk data collection scheme had ‘no basis in law‘ at all. ”

In response to those who insist he has done great damage to our country, Snowden very simply asks “How?”

Those who perpetuate the narrative that federal whistleblowing is ethically the best choice rely very heavily upon the grounds that it is the duty of any civilian to report illegalities on the part of the government. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world” argues that “the world needs more whistleblowers because those in positions of power are often expert as hiding corruption from the public. People with integrity and a desire for truth and justice within the political system are often our best hope for bringing light to this corruption.” Speaking directly on Snowden’s whistleblowing, the EFF stated “when Edward Snowden performed an act of remarkable conscience…[he] empowered a generation of us to stand up to abuses and to do the right thing, even when it’s not convenient.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a “non-partisan, non-profit organization whose stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States”; the ACLU is not tied to one end of the political spectrum, supporting Ed Snowden’s right to release this information along with the KKK’s right to free speech. Along with the EFF, the ACLU also perpetuates the narrative that whistleblowing is a patriotic, selfless and morally righteous act. “Edward Snowden is a patriot,” they state on their website, “he undertook great personal risk for the public good.” They credit Snowden with court ruling’s that the NSA’s mass surveillance program is unconstitutional, and argue that if Snowden had attempted to present his documents to Congress, nothing would have happened, justifying his decision to go to the press and leak the documents.

Both of these organizations are dedicated to protecting citizen’s rights and keeping government organizations like the NSA in check, and their arguments are based in serving and honoring the rights of the people.

Numerous high ranking political figures have made public statements not only defending Snowden but heralding him as a hero as well. In a speech overlooked by most American newspapers, former president Jimmy Carter referred to Snowden’s actions as “beneficial” and went on to assert that “at this point in time” America no longer has a “functioning democracy”. Speaking of Snowden, Carter went on to say “he’s obviously violated the laws of America, for which he’s responsible, but I think the invasion of human rights and American privacy has gone too far.”

Public figures ranging from Daniel Ellsberg to Glenn Beck have also publicly thanked Snowden; Ron Paul issued a statement on the situation, saying “We should be thankful for individuals [like Snowden] who speak out despite the risk.

All of the support for Snowden is again based in an ideology that honors democracy and speaking out for what is right even in the face of risk.

The argument that praises Snowden as a hero and a patriot is rooted in Snowden’s self-proclaimed commitment to democracy and the United States Constitution. He reported a violation of the people’s rights, upholding his duty as an American citizen, and as a result, numerous bills have been introduced and privacy lawsuits have been filed, targeting the NSA’s spying program.

Several polls of the American public revealed that the majority of the people consider Snowden a patriot and do not feel he should be prosecuted. Protests in his support have been held worldwide, across the country and even in Hong Kong.

The foundational principles of our U.S. government outlined in the Declaration of Independence state that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”, and that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends”, it is not only the “right of the people” but “their duty” to abolish, or in this case, expose when “any form of government becomes destructive of these ends.” Thus Snowden appears to be doing just this, fulfilling his duty as an American citizen.

Snowden has opened a global debate about mass surveillance and a national debate about government transparency, yet the debate over whether he should be viewed as a hero or as a traitor seems to be something that will never truly resolve itself; federal whistleblowing will continue to divide opinions time and time again.

 If there is anything that stands out most about Ed Snowden’s case as a federal whistleblower, it is his response when asked about his fears regarding what he had done, to which he responded, “My greatest fear is that nothing will change.”







6 thoughts on “The Morality of Whistleblowing: Patriot vs. Traitor

  1. Its interesting to hear that there were a good chunk of politicians who supported Snowden’s whistleblowing, also this is a great narrative!


  2. Fast clap for Sahar, I really like your narrative. In response to the quote from the article, “[Snowden] faces a life of exile or imprisonment,” in this case exile is a form of imprisonment because he’s trapped.


  3. Also the Snowden case reminds me of Ai Weiwei because he wasn’t allowed to leave China. In a way it’s the inverse situation, but there are a lot of similarities.


  4. Snowden seems really smart in that interview, hes really brave and it’s whack that whistleblowers have to give up their life to try to help their country.


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