The Whistle Blower’s Fate

What it Says About Us

Many of us are inclined to view the whistle blower as a kind of hero, the person who sacrifices his own career to warn others of the danger he alone knows, a danger that could eventually ensnare others in suffering or moral corruption. But it hardly ever works out that he is rewarded for his daring.

More often, the whistle blower is shunned by his colleagues and punished – and that is likely to be the fate of Edward Snowden. It is not surprising, of course, that the government will prosecute him. It wants to discourage such behavior as quickly and forcefully as it can. What calls out for explanation is why colleagues and fellow citizens turn against the whistle blower, why do the potential beneficiaries of the whistle blower’s painful and difficult revelations end up punishing him?

C. Fred Alford researched this over ten years ago for his book, The Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, concluding: “the reality of whistleblowing is grim. Few whistleblowers succeed in effecting change; even fewer are regarded as heroes or martyrs.”

The essential reason he found is that co-workers do not want to know what the whistle blower reveals. If they acknowledge the exposed truth, their careers will be jeopardized. At the very least, their comfort and sense of security is undermined.

If it is not about their own organization, engaging their own colleagues, it still poses an extremely uncomfortable dilemma most would prefer to avoid: They know and everyone else is forced to know that standard policies and procedures are illegal or corrupt. Do they address that and throw their own careers off course? Do they not address that and run the risk of being complicit?

A frequent “solution” to this dilemma for by-standers is to turn against the whistle blower, either castigating him for putting others at risk, or delving into his motivations. Dick Chaney, not surprisingly, took the former course, calling Snowden a “traitor.” David Brooks in The New York Times, going the other way, took him apart. “Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.”

Not content with defining him as a personal failure, he went on to see him as representing all that is wrong with out society, calling him the “ultimate unmediated man,” without redeeming social commitments: “He betrayed honesty and integrity…. He betrayed his oaths.,,, He betrayed his friends…. He betrayed his employers…. He betrayed the cause of open government.” Not content with that, Brooks went on to claim: “He betrayed the privacy of us all.” Finally, “He betrayed the Constitution.” (See, “The Solitary Leaker.”)

This extraordinary diatribe leaves one wondering why Brooks’ journalistic colleagues at The Guardian and The Washington Post cooperated in publishing Snowden’s revelations in the first place, and why corporations like Google are reexamining their policies of cooperating with government surveillance. What vituperation do they deserve?

It may well be that the governments extensive data mining is justified in the cause of national security. But whatever Snowden’s crime, he is forcing us all to think about this complex and difficult issue.

Perhaps that is what can’t be forgiven.