Little is known about Edward Snowden.
Last week, the former Hawaii-based CIA and international contract worker released a trove of classified documents on the National Safety Administration’s (NSA) top secret surveillance programs, such as PRISM and FISA, which monitor domestic and international communications between U.S. citizens. It is also known that after releasing these documents to the Washington Post and UK publication The Guardian, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, where his current whereabouts are unknown.
Snowden, according to the wide majority of first reports from reputable media outlets, is a whistleblower—one who exposes wrongdoing, corruption or fraud within an area of government or a private sector business.
But is he?
Media organizations, at this point, know only snippets of solid information on Snowden, much less the degree of any alleged illegality in which the government has participated. Despite this, the court of public opinion has fired up its debate as to whether he is a whistleblowing patriot or a criminal who has threatened the public’s security and undermined the Democratic process by leaking classified materials.
Traditionally, a whistleblower—whether internally through a proper chain of administrative command or externally by going straight to the media or law enforcement—reports alleged unacceptable misconduct under protection of the centuries-old False Claims Act. More recently, the Obama administration enacted new whistleblower protections last year for members of the intelligence and national security communities to keep them from retaliation under specific circumstances.
Many wonder, though, in which area does this case fall? Snowden may be out of luck when it comes to this set of government protections, as the presidential order only applies federal employees, not hired contractors. While this may be looking far into the future, it’s the type obstacle Snowden may encounter once the dust settles.
This question, like many others, is likely to persist over the coming weeks and months: Is Edward Snowden a true whistleblower? Or is he simply a government employee who broke an oath he swore upon his employment to the detriment—or betterment, the other side argues—of the American people?
Regardless of one’s personal belief of whether Snowden is “fighting the good fight” or a man who disagreed with a government policy and took to drastic measures, it’s worth examining the media’s free-wielding of the term “whistleblower.”
Though many news organizations reporting on Snowden initially deemed him a whistleblower, a few have begun to take steps to correct this possible misnomer.
The managing editor for standards and practices at National Public Radio (NPR), for instance, sent a memo to the company’s journalists asking them to use the word “leaker” when referring to Snowden. Tom Kent, standards editor for what many consider the final word in journalistic practices, the Associated Press (AP), appears to share this way of thinking. He relayed to his staff Monday that, because it is not yet decided whether the conduct exposed by Snowden constitutes wrongdoing, he is to be labeled as a leaker until further notice.
“A better term to use on our own is ‘leakers,’” Kent said in a staff memo obtained by the Huffington Post. “Or, in our general effort to avoid labels and instead describe behavior, we can simply write what they did: they leaked or exposed or revealed classified information.”
Many in the media feel the term “whistleblower” connotates something positive, like an individual’s actions were justified. The term “leaker,” on the other hand, could go either way depending on how this massive security information breach pans out. Many speculate that, in the end, the suits in Washington may wait for the court of public opinion’s verdict before passing their own rule.
With many in agreement that this international story is at the tip of a vastly-expanding iceberg, it will no doubt become clearer—or much more convoluted— as into which category Snowden will fall: whistleblower or criminal.