I asked this to some friends online recently, as “what would be your operative definition between a whistleblower and someone who simply broke the law by abusing their security clearance?”
The replies came back mostly in favor of “illegalities.” I think that’s a better answer than the Assange & Co who would answer “secrets.” My distiction is exposing dishonesty about important policies, rather than illegalities or secrets. The problem with “exposing a secret” is that 99% of everything that the intelligence community produces is classified and thus a secret. What would then stop anybody working with classified material from passing on the files they’ve promised to protect? We also have the issue that that a *lot* of the CIA does is probably illegal, or something like “not legal” but not fully “illegal.”
Let’s take two cases: the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s revelations. Nothing illegal happened in the drafting or classifying of the Pentagon Papers. However, they exposed widespread lying by the US government. Internally, they were discussing how completely different their motives were from what they were telling the tens of thousands of men they were drafting for war in Indochina. The war was “70%” about avoiding a “humiliating defeat.”
Another problem with illegality being the operative separation is that all of the original Snowden revelations were about legal programs with judicial oversight. It started with a warrant, in fact. So nobody who would consider Snowden a whistleblower should be using PRISM as an excuse if they think the line between a leaker and whisteblower is about exposing illegalities The broad outline of PRISM is found in the FISA Amendment Act (FAA) of 2008. There’s actually not one article I’ve read suggesting that PRISM was acting outside the parameters Congress set with FAA.
It also doesn’t fit my test of dishonesty because two branches of the government came out defending the program the day this all broke, rather than denying it. There didn’t seem to be much an effort to *hide* the broad outlines of what they were doing. I think if the government did deny it and mislead earlier, there would be a stronger case that Snowden was a whistleblower for revealing this rather than just a leaker.
There’s been some debate about whether James Clapper lied to Congress with the question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper replied, “No sir … not wittingly.” I’m actually comfortable with this response, as it seems a correct-ish answer to a blunt question about a very complicated system. But if you were misled by this before you had ever heard of Edward Snowden’s name, then you have a right to call him a whisteblower.
Then there’s the hacking revelations. They were both illegal and exposed dishonesty. The US government is denying hacking server backbones and there is certainly no law giving the NSA or CIA the right to hack into civilian, commercial, and consumer computer systems. This might be a rather large rabbit hole indeed, as the head of security for the Hong Kong Internet Exchange says the only way they could have been hacked and not known it is if the firmware itself were compromised. Which raises the alarming possibility that US branded electronics might be doing what the US Congress accused Huawei of doing.
I think dishonesty is the best heuristic here – as its a red flag over something someone is actively trying to cover up. Why are they so quick to confirm PRISM but deny the hacking? From my point of view, it’s because they know how bad and inexcusable the hacking is and that we’re only seeing part of how ugly it really gets.
But there’s also the fundamental point that while it’s okay to have secrets in a democracy, and it might even be okay to have government operatives sometimes acting outside the law, it’s not okay to mislead the public in a democracy over big issues. Lying about Vietnam and Cambodia was a public policy disaster. The same goes for lying about the strength of the case for an active WMD program in Iraq (which was dishonest, but not illegal, to claim). And perhaps ditto on the government hiding the fact that they’re doing all the same dirty tech dealings everyone hates on China for doing. They might well have brought us into a cyberwar and forgotten to tell us.