The problem with the ‘good leaker’ theory

One of the interesting things that I noticed about the Edward Snowden case is how many so-called liberals and Democrats tried to portray him as a ‘bad leaker’ and distinguish him from Daniel Ellsberg as a ‘good leaker’, making the argument that Ellsberg had worked ‘within the system’, had first exhausted the ‘proper channels’, and stayed in the country to face the consequences, while Snowden had not only gone outside the system but even outside the country.

It did not seem to faze them that Ellsberg came out strongly in support of Snowden and said that the times and situations were quite different, the response of the government was much harsher in the Snowden case, and that Snowden was right to do what he did. I came to the conclusion that for these people, what they meant by a good leaker was someone who leaked information that reflected adversely on a president they disliked like Richard Nixon while a bad leaker did it to a president they liked like Barack Obama. It also helped that Ellsberg was an Ivy-league educated member of the elite class while Snowden seemed to be part of the great unwashed, a community college dropout. It will be interesting to see if now that Donald Trump is president, these people suddenly cease to care that much about such fine distinctions and welcome any and all leakers. I suspect that there will be many such people.

Cindy Cohn and Karen Gullo writing for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, take issue with the (in my opinion) highly over-rated Malcolm Gladwell who made the case in the New Yorker that Snowden does not deserve the same respect and support and protections that Ellsberg got.

In his piece, Mr. Gladwell dreams up a fictional whistleblower, Daniel Snowberg, an ex-EFF intern with a PhD in international relations who is working as an analyst at the NSA. This highly credentialed guy runs across a copy of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) authorization, which requires phone companies to hand over records to the NSA under Section 215 of the Patriot Act (sound familiar?). He’s troubled by it, and sends it to his old friends at EFF, who confirm that it looks unconstitutional (so far, so good). Snowberg then goes to Senator Ron Wyden, who also agrees that the order is unconstitutional and suggests that Snowberg go to the national press with it. Snowberg eventually leaks the order to the Washington Post.

As Mr. Gladwell tells it, this trajectory—credentials, Congress, big-time press and only revealing a single thing at a time—puts his fictional creation in the same league as Ellsberg, an ex-Marine and Harvard graduate who studied under a Nobel Prize winner and gave advice to Henry Kissinger before disclosing the Pentagon Papers. Gladwell paints good leaking as part of a deep game where key insiders play chess with each other by leaking and then counterleaking. Mr. Gladwell contrasts Snowberg and Ellsberg to Snowden, a community college dropout who left the CIA under a cloud and revealed an unprecedented global surveillance infrastructure. Snowden wasn’t playing a game; his motivation is that he cares about democracy and the public’s right to know and make informed decisions. Because of Snowden’s differences with Ellsberg (or Snowberg), Mr. Gladwell claims that Snowden isn’t an “insider” leaker who we should trust, but instead is a “radicalized hacker.”

What is it that makes people like Gladwell try to make such tortured distinctions? The authors argue that it is the desire to be part of the Washington establishment, to be ‘respectable’.

Washington insiders often want to look reasonable by saying they understand the need for whistleblowers in the abstract, and point to Ellsberg, whose acts are safely in the past, as an example. But when it comes to the actual steps someone has to take today, they find some way to oppose. Today’s whistleblowers always deserve jail, or worse, the argument goes.

Beyond smacking of elitism—apparently you have to go to Harvard and rub shoulders with Henry Kissinger to be considered a “real” whistleblower—what’s clear is that this narrative greatly reduces the number of whistleblowers who deserve respect and protection. It’s already a tremendous act of courage for an insider to stand up and call out illegal or immoral behavior. They risk their jobs, their ability to ever get a good job again, their friends, their community and maybe even their family. Mr. Gladwell’s additional credential requirement makes sure that those numbers are even smaller.

The authors argue that the there is already a case of a good leaker (Mark Klein) whose case shows that the scenario painted by Gladwell can easily fail. Klein and the EFF tried all the Ellsberg strategies and got nowhere. (I wrote about the Klein case here.)

What we should be doing is making acceptability of whistleblowing even broader to encourage more people to do so, unlike the efforts of people like Gladwell to support them only when they reach some absurd standard of elite acceptability or use those standards to distinguish between those leaks they like and those they dislike for other reasons.


  1. says

    Klein, Drake, and Binney were both “good leakers” – and the government did not hesitate to retaliate against them. Drake and Binney actually were initially trying to draw attention to fraud/waste/abuse in an NSA program – they weren’t even trying to go public with it like Klein or Snowden did. Yet the government came after them and ruined their lives, even came after their lawyers.

    Gladwell’s fond of dealing with surface level knowledge: he learns enough about a topic to say something “thought-provoking” and incisive about it. because he’s made his chops by looking at things and coming up with a sufficiently lateral take on it to come across as the contrarian visionary. Generally he sticks with something that’s open enough to interpretation that it’s plausible that he may be right, but it’s really hard to tell. It’s a good schtick and he plays it well. He’s also pretty good about sticking to large and complex enough problems that there’s nothing he can do about them, which is pretty convenient.

    I doubt Gladwell is being a lapdog for the establishment – that would entail actually having a complex established belief system. He mostly appears to be occasionally poking at the establishment because the establishment does lots of stupid stuff and has a big attack surface. That’s why some people seem sometimes to be anti-establishment, but really are just random critics with a 70% chance of hitting something on the government’s agenda, and a 30% chance of appearing to align with the establishment. (How’s that for some bayesian priors?)

    What we should be doing is making acceptability of whistleblowing even broader

    In theory it already is/was. There were programs in place to pay whistleblowers a significant amount of money (million$!) in the event that they uncovered fraud on a sufficient scale. Generally, the government has backed away from that because, I suppose, there was going to be too much corruption uncovered.

    Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded $104million by the IRS as a whistleblower. You’d think that they’d be promoting that sort of message. Except it indicates a lot about corruption.

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