“I have a lot of respect for whistleblowers,” President Donald Trump said at a news conference Wednesday, before qualifying, “but only when they are real.” It remains unclear what the first U.S. president who comes from reality television means by “real.” What is clear is that the impeachment inquiry announced last week by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has infuriated Trump as it picks up steam. The inquiry is based largely on the complaint of a single whistleblower, who revealed, through legally prescribed channels, details of Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate one of Trump’s 2020 presidential rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. That a single whistleblower could trigger Trump’s potential impeachment reminds us how important whistleblowers are to a functioning democracy. It also compels us to recognize that far too many of them over the years have been vilified, persecuted and prosecuted for their courageous acts.
“How is it that there has been just one whistleblower?” Preet Bharara, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, asked in a tweet. “Gee I wonder,” replied Edward Snowden, one of the world’s most famous whistleblowers. Ed Snowden has been living in exile in Moscow since 2013 after he released to journalists millions of pages of documents he had taken out of the National Security Agency, where he had worked on the nation’s most closely guarded surveillance programs.
Snowden’s derisive quip to Bharara is grounded in his own hard-earned experience. Snowden witnessed what he thought was a vast web of illegal, unconstitutional surveillance activities being conducted at the NSA. He left his home in Hawaii with a trove of top-secret electronic files and flew to Hong Kong, where he met with journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. Holed up in a hotel room over the course of days, Snowden walked the trio of reporters through the myriad spy programs that he considered illegal, including the dragnet collection of all cellphone call records in the U.S., potentially vacuuming up the internet browsing activity of everyone on the planet and spying on cellphone calls of world leaders, for starters.
“The question that we have to ask is: Why?” Snowden said on the “Democracy Now!” news hour, days after the release of “Permanent Record,” his memoir. “Don’t we need, as a public, to understand what the government is doing … behind closed doors?” Snowden’s memoir details his trajectory as a young computer expert, inspired by the attacks of 9/11 to join the military and then, after an accident, to move into the intelligence community.
Snowden became increasingly alarmed by the vast surveillance state that he was helping to build, but knew that, if he were to follow the formal channels for raising concerns, it wouldn’t end well. “NSA whistleblowers who did go through this process had their lives destroyed,” he said on “Democracy Now!” “They lost their careers, they lost their homes, in some cases they lost their families, because of the stress and retaliation and consequences they face.”
The list of whistleblowers who have suffered for their acts gets increasingly longer: NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Bill Binney and NSA contractor Reality Winner; the CIA’s Jeffrey Sterling; and U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, to name just a few. Some went through official channels; others went straight to the press. Their disclosures served the public, and, in return, zealous government prosecutors brought the hammer down on them.
“Some of them lost their freedom,” Snowden said from his home in exile. “Chelsea Manning right now is sitting in prison. We have had so much mistreatment of whistleblowers here.”
Lawyers for the current whistleblower have written that their client is currently under federal protection, and that they fear for the person’s safety. Edward Snowden understands what worries this whistleblower. “The government made me public enemy number one. I was the most wanted man in the world,” he said. Ultimately, he chose to go directly to the press, instead of risking the official channels that often fail the whistleblower. He is willing to return to the U.S. to face trial, provided it is fair and open to the public, not if he is tried in secret, unable to present his reasons for his disclosures. “I don’t believe participating in that kind of system advances the interests of justice; I think that perpetuates a system of injustice.”