In my case, I was ignorant of what would
happen once I blew the whistle. I didn’t expect the Department of State
to attack me. National Security Agency (NSA)
whistleblower Tom Drake was similarly unprepared. He initially
believed that, when the FBI first came to interview him, they were on
his side, eager to learn more about the criminal acts he had uncovered
at the NSA.
Snowden was different in this. He had the
example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly
never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on
He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama
administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via
yet another prosecution under the
Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty).
He also knew what his government had done
since 9/11 without compunction: it had
tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it
considered enemies into years of
indefinite imprisonment, creating
isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a
murdered Americans without due process,
and then, of course, there were the
extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived
enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11
Sooner or later, if you’re a whistleblower,
you get scared. It’s only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward
Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid.
Would the Russians turn him over to
Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of
spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?
Even if he made it out of Moscow, he
couldn’t have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts
of the U.S. government would be turned on him. How many CIA case
Joint Special Operations Command types
did the U.S. have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had
The partner of Guardian journalist
Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden's story, had his
laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil. This happened only
after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted
copy of Snowden’s documents.
In such moments, you try to push back the
sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you
are being monitored, followed, watched. It’s uncomfortable, scary.
You have to wonder what your fate will be
once the media grows bored with your story, or when whatever government
has given you asylum changes its stance vis-a-vis the U.S. When the
knock comes at the door, who will protect you?
So who can doubt that fear made the journey
Could I Go Back
to the U.S.?
Amnesty International was on target when it
stated that Snowden,
“could be at risk of ill-treatment if
extradited to the U.S.”
As if to prove them right, months, if not
years, before any trial,
Speaker of the House John Boehner
called Snowden a “traitor”
Congressman Peter King called
him a “defector”
others were already demanding his
If that wasn’t enough, the abuse Bradley
Manning suffered had already convinced Snowden that a fair trial and
humane treatment were impossible dreams for a whistleblower of his sort.
(He specifically cited Manning in his
appeal for asylum to Ecuador.)
So on that flight he knew - as he had long
known - that the natural desire to go back to the U.S. and make a stand
was beyond foolhardy. Yet the urge to return to the country he loves
must have been traveling with him, too.
Perhaps on that flight he found himself
grimly amused that, after years of running roughshod over international
Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black
sites” - the U.S. had the nerve to
chide Hong Kong, China, and Russia for not following the rule of
He certainly knew that his own revelations
about massive NSA cyber-spying on
Hong Kong and China had deeply embarrassed the Obama administration.
It had, after all, been
blistering the Chinese for hacking into U.S. military and corporate
computers. He himself had ensured that the Chinese wouldn’t turn him
over, in the same way that history - decades of U.S.
bullying in Latin America - ensured that he had a shot at a future
in someplace like in Ecuador.
If he knew his extradition history, Snowden
might also have thought about another time when Washington squirmed as a
man it wanted left a friendly country for asylum.
In 2004, the U.S. had chess great
Bobby Fischer detained in Japan on
charges that he had attended a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in violation of
a U.S. trade ban.
Others suggested that the real reason
Washington was after him may have been Fischer’s post 9/11 statement:
"It's time to finish off the U.S. once
and for all. This just shows what comes around, goes around."
Fischer’s American passport was revoked just
In the fashion of Hong Kong more recently,
the Japanese released Fischer on an immigration technicality, and he
flew to Iceland where he was granted citizenship. I was a diplomat in
Japan at the time, and had a ringside seat for the negotiations.
They must have paralleled what went on in
the appeals to treaty and
U.S. diplomats sounding like so many
disappointed parents scolding a child
the pale hopes expressed for future
the search for a sympathetic ear
among local law enforcement agencies, immigration, and the
foreign ministry - anybody, in fact,
...and finally, the desperate attempt to
call in personal favors to buy more time for whatever Plan B might be.
As with Snowden, in the end the U.S. stood
by helplessly as its prey flew off.
How Will I Live
At some point every whistleblower realizes
his life will never be the same.
For me, that meant losing my job of 24 years
at the State Department. For Tom Drake, it
meant financial ruin as the government tried to bankrupt him through
For CIA agent John Kiriakou, it might
have been the moment when,
convicted of disclosing classified information to journalists, he
said goodbye to his family and
walked into Loretto Federal Correctional Institution.
Snowden could not have avoided anxiety about
Wherever he ended up,
How would he live?
What work would he do?
He’s just turned 30 and faces, at best, a
lifetime in some foreign country he’s never seen where he might not know
the language or much of anything else.
So fear again, in a slightly different form.
It never leaves you, not when you take on
the world’s most powerful government.
Would he ever see his family and
Would they disown him, fearful of
retaliation or affected by the
smear campaign against him?
Would his parents/best
friend/girlfriend come to believe he was a traitor, a defector,
a dangerous man?
All whistleblowers find their personal
Marriages are tested or broken, friends
lost, children teased or bullied at school. I know from my own
whistleblower’s journey that it’s an ugly penalty - encouraged by a
government scorned - for acting on conscience.
If he had a deeper sense of history, Snowden
might have found humor in the way
Obama administration chose to revoke his passport just
before he left Hong Kong. After all, in the Cold War years, it was the
“evil empire,” the Soviet Union, which was notorious for refusing to
grant dissidents passports, while the U.S. regularly waived such
requirements when they escaped to the West.
To deepen the irony of the moment, perhaps
he was able to Google up the 2009-2011 figures on U.S.
grants of asylum:
...not including family members.
Maybe he learned that, despite the tantrums
U.S. officials threw regarding the international obligation of Russia to
extradite him, the U.S. has recently
refused Russian requests to extradite two of its citizens.
Snowden might have mused over then-candidate
Obama's explicit pledge to protect whistleblowers.
"Often the best source of information
about waste, fraud, and abuse in government," Obama then
said, "is an existing government employee committed to public
integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and
patriotism... should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have
the Bush administration."
It might have been Snowden's only laugh of
I Don’t Hate the U.S., I Love It Deeply, But Believe
It Has Strayed
On that flight, Snowden took his love of
America with him.
It’s what all of us whistleblowers share: a
love of country, if not necessarily its government, its military, or its
intelligence services. We care what happens to us the people. That may
have been his anchor on his unsettling journey. It would have been mine.
Remember, if we were working in the
government in the first place, like every federal employee, soldier, and
many government contractors, we had taken an oath that stated:
“I will support and defend the
Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and
domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
We didn’t pledge fealty to the government or
a president or party, only - as the Constitution makes clear - to the
ultimate source of legitimacy in our nation, “the people.”
interview, Snowden indicated that he held off on making his
disclosures for some time, in hopes that Barack Obama might look into
the abyss and decide to become the bravest president in our history by
reversing the country’s course.
Only when Obama’s courage or intelligence
failed was it time to become a whistleblower.
Some pundits claim that Snowden deserves
nothing, because he didn’t go through “proper channels.” They couldn’t
be more wrong and Snowden knows it. As with many of us whistleblowers
facing a government acting in opposition to the Constitution, Snowden
went through the channels that matter most: he used a free press to
speak directly to his real boss, the American people.
In that sense, whatever the fear and anxiety
about his life and his future, he must have felt easy with his actions.
He had not betrayed his country, he had sought to inform it.
Manning, Obama administration officials are now claiming
that Snowden has blood on his hands.
Typically, Secretary of State John Kerry
“People may die as a consequence to what
this man did. It is possible that the United States would be
attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves
in some way or another that they didn't know before.”
Snowden had heard the same slurs circling
around Bradley Manning: that he had put people in
After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not
to speak of the war on terror, there is irony too obvious to dwell upon
in such charges. Flying into the unknown, Snowden had to feel secure in
having risked everything to show Americans how their government and the
NSA bend or break laws to collect information on us in direct conflict
Fourth Amendment’s protections.
pointed out that blood-on-hands wasn’t at issue.
"It appears he is being charged
primarily for revealing U.S. and other governments’ unlawful actions
that violate human rights.”
Those whispers of support are something to
take into the dark with you.
I Believe in Things Bigger Than Myself
Some of the charges against Snowden would
make anyone pause: that, for instance, he did what he did for the thrill
of publicity, out of narcissism, or for his own selfish reasons.
To any of the members of the post-9/11 club
of whistleblowers, the idea that we acted primarily for our own benefit
has a theater of the absurd quality to it. Having been there, the
negative sentiments expressed do not read or ring true.
Snowden himself laughed off the notion that
he had acted for his own benefit.
If he had wanted money, any number of
foreign governments would have paid handsomely for the information he
handed out to journalists for free and he would never have had to embark
on that plane flight from Hong Kong. (No one ever called
Aldrich Ames a whistleblower.)
If he wanted fame, there were potential book
contracts and film deals to be had.
No, it was conscience.
I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along
the line Snowden had read the
Declaration of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal:
"Individuals have international duties
which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore
individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to
prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring."
Edward Snowden undoubtedly took comfort
knowing that a growing group of Americans are outraged enough to resist
a government turning against its own people.
His thoughts were mirrored by
Julian Assange, who said,
“In the Obama administration's attempt
to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S.
government is taking on a generation, a young generation of people
who find the mass violation of the rights of privacy and open
In taking on the generation, the Obama
administration can only lose.”
Snowden surely hoped President Obama would
ask himself why he has pursued more than
double the number of Espionage Act cases of all his presidential
predecessors combined, and why almost all of those prosecutions
On that flight, Edward Snowden must have
reflected on what he had lost, including the high salary, the sweet life
in Hawaii and
Switzerland, the personal relationships, and the excitement of being
on the inside, as well as the coolness of knowing tomorrow’s news today.
He has already lost much that matters in an
individual life, but not everything that matters.
Sometimes - and any whistleblower comes to
know this in a deep way - you have to believe that something other,
more, deeper, better than yourself matters.
You have to believe that one courageous act
of conscience might make a difference in an America gone astray or
simply that, matter or not, you did the right thing for your country.