A look at Edward Snowden, Karen Silkwood, and government and corporate whistleblowing, by an author praised for his “first-rate reporting” (Kirkus Reviews).
In June of 2013, Edward Snowden, a twenty-nine-year-old former CIA employee, leaked thousands of top secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents to journalist Glen Greenwald. Branded as a whistleblower, Snowden reignited a debate about private citizens who reveal government secrets that should be exposed but may endanger the lives of others. Like the late Karen Silkwood, whose death in a car accident while bringing incriminating evidence against her employer to a meeting with a New York Times reporter is still a mystery, Snowden was intent upon revealing the controversial practices of his employer, a government contractor. Rightly or wrongly, Snowden and Silkwood believed that their revelations would save lives. In his riveting, thought-provoking book, Richard Rashke weaves between the lives of these two controversial figures and creates a narrative context for a discussion of what constitutes a citizen’s duty to reveal or not to reveal.
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About the Author
Richard Rashke is the author of nonfiction books including The Killing of Karen Silkwood (2000) and Useful Enemies (2013). His books have been translated into eleven languages and have been adapted for screen and television. Rashke is also a produced screenwriter and playwright; his work has appeared on network television and in New York.
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The Whistleblower's Dilemma
Snowden, Silkwood and Their Quest for the Truth
By Richard Rashke
DELPHINIUM BOOKSCopyright © 2015 Richard Rashke
All rights reserved.
THE WHISTLEBLOWER'S DILEMMA
In June 2013, Edward Snowden shoved himself and other whistleblowers like Karen Silkwood into the spotlight when he leaked top-secret National Security Agency (NSA) documents. In so doing, he reminded the nation that whistleblowing is both a First Amendment right, albeit controversial, and a necessity to keep government and commerce honest. Snowden's actions provoked a series of questions ranging from nettlesome to troublesome:
Are whistleblowers heroes or traitors?
Are whistleblowers snitches or saviors?
Do they have a legal, moral, or ethical obligation to blow the whistle?
Do they do more damage than good for the nation?
What personal price do they pay?
Is it worth it?
Most of the hundreds, if not thousands, of whistleblowers never earn ink on the front pages of national newspapers or their online counterparts. Most of the whistleblowers who make headlines do so because they have exposed the secrets of powerful corporations and government agencies with seemingly unlimited resources to hound, scare, silence, and break their critics financially, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Whistleblowers who leak classified government secrets force the nation to question the legality or criminality of their controversial activity. These whistleblowers also leave the government with little choice but to charge, try, convict, and sentence them under the Espionage Act of 1917 — as the U.S. Department of Justice did with Wiki leaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and threatens to do with Edward Snowden, if it can ever extradite him to the United States to face a judge.
A potential whistleblower who discovers wrongdoing is, more often than not, forced to grapple with a life-altering or life-shattering dilemma. What to do?
Look the other way. "It's none of my business."
Rationalize the problem. "It goes on everywhere, so why should I stick my neck out?"
Pass the buck. "It's somebody else's problem, not mine."
Be pragmatic. "Nothing will change anyway."
Protect self and family. "It's too risky."
Get rich. "Doesn't the government pay for information on waste and fraud?"
Blow the whistle. "It's my duty."
Researchers such as sociologists Joyce Rothschild and Terance D. Miethe, who have conducted an extensive survey of whistleblowers and written thoughtful articles on the whistleblowing phenomenon, have provided a context to evaluate and understand both Edward Snowden and Karen Silkwood. One of their important findings is that, unlike Snowden and Silkwood, at least half of those who observe wrongdoing in the workplace remain silent. They fear retaliation and believe that blowing the whistle wouldn't do any good. Why take the risk?
Rothschild, Miethe, and other researchers have also discovered striking similarities among whistleblowers who, like Snowden and Silkwood, challenged organizations rather than individuals.
Most or a vast majority of whistleblowers were naïve before they reported wrongdoing. They didn't understand the risks or foresee the consequences. They reported the wrongdoing internally rather than to the media, which they considered a last resort. And they were motivated to blow the whistle by pride in their work and/or by "personally held values."
Most or a vast majority of whistleblowers saw their job performance ratings decline, experienced an increase in the monitoring of their work and phone calls, and were eventually fired or forced to resign. Fellow workers, warned to avoid contact with them, shunned them, making them pariahs in the workplace. Most experienced some form of retaliation by their employer that resulted in severe depression or anxiety, deteriorating physical health, severe financial loss, and stressed family relations. The retaliation against them was greater when the wrongdoing was "systemic" — an essential part of the culture and modus operandi of the organization.
Most or a vast majority of whistleblowers felt that the stress, insecurity, loss of sleep, feelings of isolation and powerlessness, anger, and paranoia damaged their physical, spiritual, and mental health for up to five years. Furthermore, they observed no significant positive change in the organization they blew the whistle on, and they watched the wrongdoer go unpunished.
Of course, whistleblowers can always file a harassment lawsuit against their employer, but the chances of winning are slim. As a complainant, the whistleblower would have to prove that the alleged intimidation and harassment was an unwarranted and deliberate punishment for blowing the whistle. Such cause and effect is difficult to establish in a court of law. Furthermore, the whistleblower would have to fell a Goliath armed with a fat wallet and backed by an army of high-priced attorneys. Already financially stressed, how long could a lone David hold out?
Here lies the whistleblower's dilemma. Given the frightening and predictable consequences, why would whistleblowers like Snowden and Silkwood want to expose illegal activity, corruption, criminal negligence, or fraud?CHAPTER 2
Edward Snowden was a self-taught computer maverick who dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen. Later, professional colleagues called him a genius. He chose to leak his classified NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald, another maverick. Trained as a constitutional lawyer at New York University, Greenwald began his career as a litigation attorney. He went on to become an award-winning author, journalist, and columnist, and an expatriate who worked out of a remote mountain home overlooking Rio de Janeiro.
Greenwald's writings explain why Snowden chose him: his 2001 bestseller, With Liberty and Justice for Some, examines the double standard of the U.S. criminal-justice system — one for the powerless and one for high-level government officials. The book made him the darling of privacy-rights activists and the champion of "justice for all." The "all" included President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who approved, according to Greenwald, illegal and unconstitutional invasions of the privacy of American citizens in Trailblazer and StellarWind, NSA's secret bulk-data-collection operations.
"By ordering illegal eavesdropping," Greenwald argued, "the president had committed crimes and should be held accountable for them."
In sum, Glenn Greenwald had a set of sharp teeth and loved to nip at the heels of bureaucrats, politicians, and high government officials. When Edward Snowden first contacted him in December 2012, Greenwald was skeptical. With his international reputation at stake, he was not about to be conned by a self-proclaimed computer professional who said he worked for the U.S. intelligence community. Greenwald approached Snowden with a great deal of caution and a prudent dash of journalistic skepticism. When he finally met Snowden face-to-face seven months after Snowden had first contacted him, Greenwald grilled the former CIA and NSA systems analyst and hacker for five uninterrupted hours. Like a wily prosecutor, he laid traps designed to catch Snowden in lies and inconsistencies, or ducking behind vague answers. After the marathon interview, Greenwald concluded: "Snowden was highly intelligent and rational, and his thought processes methodical. His answers were crisp, clear, and cogent. In virtually every case, they were directly responsive to what I had asked, thoughtful, and deliberate. There were no strange detours or wildly improbable stories of the type that are the hallmark of emotionally unstable people or those suffering from psychological afflictions. His stability and focus instilled confidence. ... I was convinced beyond any doubt that all of Snowden's claims were authentic and his motives were considered and genuine."
Snowden's subsequent online and media interviews reveal little if anything to contradict Greenwald's observations and conclusions. They show him to be flawlessly articulate. His words flow in an unhurried, gentle manner. Sometimes he's even witty. He never seems to stumble. Or fail to complete a sentence. Or pause in search of the right word. Or sound overly boastful. To the contrary, he projects the image of a calm, confident, and sincere young man with nothing to hide. The only time he appeared nervous was when he first identified himself to the world as Edward Joseph Snowden, the person who had leaked highly classified NSA documents to the media.
For a kid without a high school diploma or GED certificate, Snowden's career path borders on stunning. The following account shows that Snowden was far from the low-level computer geek that government damage controllers tried to make him out to be.
"Ed" Snowden grew up inside the dense Washington-Baltimore corridor, a fifteen-minute drive from the headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. The National Security Agency — or "No Such Agency" as the NSA is playfully called — occupied an eleven-story steel and glass cube that sits on a 350-acre campus guarded by its own police force and employing more than 30,000 people. Young Snowden was so undistinguished that former classmates and teachers barely remember him. Nor did he stand out as a Boy Scout. If he was remembered at all, it was as a kid obsessed with video games. Later in life he would credit video games with helping to shape his worldview. "The protagonist," he explained, "is often an ordinary person who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee or fight for his beliefs."
Ed Snowden dropped out of high school during his sophomore year, after missing several months of classes due to a bout with mononucleosis and the stress of watching his parents squabble their way into court and a messy divorce. In 1999, after recovering from his illness, he began taking classes at Anne Arundel Community College, a few miles south of Baltimore, to earn a high school diploma. He was sixteen years old.
Because his transcript is incomplete, it isn't clear what courses he took, how many, and when. Two things are quite clear, however. He had no respect for community colleges, and he never received a degree from the college. As he later posted online: "I don't even have a high school diploma." He apparently did earn an advanced certificate as a computer systems engineer.
The young Snowden was gentle, sincere, somewhat reserved, and opinionated. All of his professional life, he was defensive about his lack of academic credentials, not that he had reason to be. His IQ was 140, according to author Michael Gurnow. Politically, Snowden leaned right. (He would later dispute that label, claiming to be a moderate.) A supporter of John McCain for president and a follower of libertarian Ron Paul, Snowden hated government surveillance with a passion, and believed that the Social Security program was a government mistake that encouraged laziness. A gun advocate who owned a Walther P22 that he "loved to death," Snowden opposed President Obama's push to ban assault weapons. On the other hand, he supported a living wage, society's obligation to care for the sick, and women's rights.
As strange as it seems, given what we now know about Edward Snowden, he vehemently opposed the leaking of classified government documents to the media. In 2010, three years before he gave his own cache of highly classified NSA documents to Glenn Greenwald and others, he demonized in an Ars Technica online blog the unnamed whistleblower(s) who had leaked to the New York Times a secret report about an Israeli plan to attack Iran.
"Who the fuck are the anonymous sources?" Snowden asked during an online chat about the Times story. "Those people should be shot in the balls. ... Are they trying to start a war? ... That shit is classified for a reason."
Snowden's best friend was his computer, which he believed was mankind's greatest invention. He immersed himself in the world of the Internet, where college degrees and academic credits were irrelevant, and where it was easy to hide behind code names. He soon became a prolific blogger (800 comments) and online chat-buddy with fellow webheads on the Ars Technica website under the name The TrueHOOHA. The Internet gave him the chance to say anonymously whatever was on his mind — girls, gaming, the stock market, Japan, sex, the joys of gun ownership. He could be funny, outrageous, and fuck-you opinionated. He posted silly photos of himself: mooning the camera in black underwear; dancing in a tux; sitting in a car in a leather jacket with a photo caption that read: "So Sexxxy It Hurts! Ed Snowden, Gold Plated."
But young Ed Snowden was more than a smart-aleck, fun-loving, Internet hell-raiser. He was a serious student determined to master the computer, and he worked at it tirelessly. "I was interested in figuring out how complex systems fit together," he told Vanity Fair, "so I put them together and tore them apart. All day, all night." He kept fit with kung fu exercises.
After the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the thwarted crash in Pennsylvania, Snowden, an unabashed patriot born into a military family (his father served in the Coast Guard for three decades as a warrant officer before becoming a civil servant), decided to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Special Forces recruit. As he put it: "I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression." Critics and detractors would later suggest a different interpretation. His so-called altruism, they would argue, was little more than the self-serving defense of a criminal and traitor or the desperate attempt of an unemployed young man in search of security and a paying job.
Boasting of some degree of skill in kung fu, he hoped to become a Green Beret — one of those "Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die." Given his slight build, spindly legs, and serious nearsightedness, his plan was about as practical as that of a skinny, five-foot-tall basketball player hoping to make the NBA. "My visual acuity ends at about four inches from my eyes," he wrote in a blog. "My optometrist always has a good laugh at me."
In May 2004, the Army sent Snowden to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training. He was assigned to the 198th Infantry Brigade's 18-X program designed to fast-track recruits into the Green Berets. First, a candidate had to pass a mental aptitude test, then endure fourteen weeks of rigorous basic training followed by dangerous airborne skill training, after which the recruit received his final yes-or-no evaluation. The chosen few got a Green Beret.
Whether Snowden's Green Beret ambition was realistic or not became moot when, he has claimed, he broke both legs during airborne training — probably a parachuting exercise — in July or August and was honorably discharged in September 2004, four months after he joined the Army.
Snowden's public military record reveals that he did indeed train at Fort Benning and was honorably discharged. The record provides enlistment and discharge dates, but medical information would be in Snowden's private record, available to government agencies like the NSA but not to the public. The fact that government damage controllers have not publicly challenged the broken legs supports Snowden's version of events.
However brief, Snowden's military service informed him about more than just how to assemble an assault rifle and parachute from a training tower. The gung-ho, sand-rat attitude of his fellow inductees and instructors disillusioned him about Bush's war, which, he concluded, had more to do with taking lives than saving them. As he would later say online: "Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs."
Following in the footsteps of his libertarian father, Snowden chose to work for the federal government. Once again, he had a plan that seemed youthfully romantic. Relying on his technical skills, he would work his way up in the U.S. government from a low-level security clearance to a top-level one where, he believed, he could best serve his country with his computer skills. Searching for abuse of power and blowing the whistle, he later said, were not part of his career plan.
Snowden's goal wasn't as naïve as some critics would have it. The NSA had its roots in World War II, when it was formed as a decryption organization whose goal was to break German and Japanese codes. The agency went on to play a vital — and nearly invisible — role in the Cold War. After 9/11, the U.S. intelligence complex (including the NSA) quickly expanded. The government was so desperate for skilled technicians that it waived traditional academic computer-science credentials, leaving the door wide open for computer whiz kids without degrees. It hired more than 1,900 outside consulting firms, like the Dell Corporation and Booz Allen Hamilton, a management consulting company, to provide intelligence-gathering support at every level — from janitors, security guards, analysts, and field spies to skilled computer techies like Edward Snowden. According to the Washington Post, one in four intelligence workers was a contractor, and 70 percent or more of the intelligence community's secret budget went to non-government consulting firms.
Excerpted from The Whistleblower's Dilemma by Richard Rashke. Copyright © 2015 Richard Rashke. Excerpted by permission of DELPHINIUM BOOKS.
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Table of Contents
- 1. The Whistleblower’s Dilemma
- 2. Disillusioned: Edward Snowden
- 3. Disillusioned: Karen Silkwood
- 4. Whom To Tell: Snowden
- 5. Whom To Tell: Silkwood
- 6. Why: Snowden
- 7. Why: Silkwood
- 8. The Price: Snowden
- 9. The Price: Silkwood
- 10. Silkwood: Death
- 11. Demonization: Snowden
- 12. Demonization: Snowden
- 13. A Higher Law?
- 14. Demonization: Silkwood
- 15. Asleep at the Wheel?: Silkwood
- 16. Was It Worth It?: Snowden
- 17. Was It Worth It?: Silkwood
- Major Sources