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What was the Motivation for Bradley Snowden to Blow the Whistle on the NSA?

Looking at the Ethics of Whistleblowing

Unless you are an ostrich you know that Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine-year-old former C.I.A. employee and government contractor working for Booz Allen Hamilton until he was fired for his actions on June 11, leaked news of National Security Agency (NSA) programs that collect vast amounts of information about the telephone calls made by millions of Americans, as well as e-mails and other files of foreign targets and their American connections. For this, some are hailing him as a hero and a whistle-blower while others, such as Jeffrey Toobin who writes for the New Yorker, call him “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” In this blog I examine the issue relying on motivation to assess whether Snowden’s actions were ethically motivated.

In an interview with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian newspaper published in the United Kingdom, Snowden was asked why he became a whistle-blower. His answer was: “The NSA has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your emails or your wife's phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards. 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. That is not something I am willing to support or live under."

With those words, Snowden set off a firestorm of criticism of Snowden, and Congressional investigations of NSA personnel. Is Snowden a true hero for ‘blowing the whistle’ or a person who seeks fame and may even have a grudge against the NSA or U.S. government?

In ethics, we often judge one’s actions by the motivation for them and the intent of the whistle-blower. I hesitate to draw any definite conclusions at this early stage as the story is still unfolding. However, I do want to share some observations with you about whistleblowing in general and Snowden’s actions.

There is no one set definition of whistle-blowing although most definitions characterize the practice as disclosing to others in an organization (internal whistleblowing) an action that violates organizational norms or the law. External whistleblowing entails going to an organization outside the employer to report wrongdoing.

Near and Miceli take a broad view of whistleblowing in a research paper published in the Academy of Management Review in 1995. They define it as “the disclosure by organization members (former or current) of illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their employers, to persons or organizations that may be able to effect action.” They identify four elements of the whistleblowing process: the whistleblower, the whistleblowing act or complaint, the party to whom the complaint is made, and the organization against which the complaint is lodged. In discussing the act itself, they label it as an act of “dissidence” somewhat analogous to civil disobedience.

The key here is it is an act designed to inform those who may be able to correct the matter. Snowden did not go to the Inspector General of the NSA or Congress with the information. He leaked it to a newspaper and one outside the U.S. at that.

The Government Accountability Project (GAP) seems to take a broad view of the practice of whistleblowing. According to GAP, whistleblowing means calling attention to wrongdoing that is occurring within an organization. GAP lists four ways to blow the whistle:

  • reporting wrongdoing or a violation of the law to the proper authorities such as a supervisor, a hotline or an Inspector General
  • refusing to participate in workplace wrongdoing
  • testifying in a legal proceeding
  • leaking evidence of wrongdoing to the media

It is the leaking of wrongdoing to the media that makes Snowden’s actions that of a whistleblower, if you go along with GAP’s characterization of the practice.

Snowden claims he was not motivated by anything other than to inform the public of what he knew. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said. The problem is his actions don’t match his words. Why did he run off to Hong Kong or China or wherever, rather than come home and face the music?

The Snowden matter is a complicated one and undoubtedly more will be known about his true motives and whether any damage has been done to the security of the U.S. down the road. My take on the situation is he was motivated by the fact that someone knew he was thinking about leaking the information and he jumped the gun to portray himself as a true whistleblower and protector of the public interest. In other words, it was a self-serving act by an opportunist motivated by looking better in the public eye than would have been the case if his intended actions were first disclosed by another party.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 14, 2013