What it feels like to be a whistleblower

Peter Van Buren, a State Department whistleblower himself, writes about what it feels like during the time. He says that unlike himself and other earlier whistleblowers who naively thought that the government would be grateful for their acts of conscience, Snowden probably was far more realistic and thus likely to be afraid of what might happen to him.

In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn’t expect the Department of State to attack me. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Tom Drake was similarly unprepared. He initially believed that, when the FBI first came to interview him, they were on his side, eager to learn more about the criminal acts he had uncovered at the NSA. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on him.

He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.

Sooner or later, if you’re a whistleblower, you get scared. It’s only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?

When people fear that their government will stop at nothing to punish them, even going well outside the boundaries set by the normal processes of the law, then you know that you have crossed a line and become an authoritarian state.

Meanwhile, those who determine what is good or bad by which president does it may not like to hear that George W. Bush seems to have views identical to Barack Obama. That is bound to cause some cognitive dissonance.


  1. says

    The modern surveillance state is nothing less than a real-world version of the One Ring.

    You can try to use it to do good, with only the purest of motivations, but through your good intentions it can do greater evil. No matter your strength of will, you use it once. Just a little bit, for the greater good. Just the tiniest use, for the best reason. You can control it. Using it again for another good reason comes easier. It gets easier every time, until you can’t even remember the reasons, and the power is all you have left.

  2. jamessweet says

    Yeah, it seems to me that even if you believe Snowden was wrong to leak and that he should be prosecuted, an ethical person can hardly favor turning him over to the US, at least not without certain conditions. The Manning case has made it abundantly clear that due process will not be applied to whistleblowers.

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