Whistleblowers vs Leakers vs Spies

Yes, officials who follow the law are "whistleblowers."

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi makes a bizarre argument: “It’s an insult to real whistleblowers to use the term with the Ukrainegate protagonist.”

The unnamed person at the center of this story sure didn’t sound like a whistleblower. Our intelligence community wouldn’t wipe its ass with a real whistleblower.

Americans who’ve blown the whistle over serious offenses by the federal government either spend the rest of their lives overseas, like Edward Snowden, end up in jail, like Chelsea Manning, get arrested and ruined financially, like former NSA official Thomas Drake, have their homes raided by FBI like disabled NSA vet William Binney, or get charged with espionage like ex-CIA exposer-of-torture John Kiriakou. It’s an insult to all of these people, and the suffering they’ve weathered, to frame the ballcarrier in the Beltway’s latest partisan power contest as a whistleblower.


I’ve met a lot of whistleblowers, in both the public and private sector. Many end up broke, living in hotels, defamed, (often) divorced, and lucky if they have any kind of job. One I knew got turned down for a waitressing job because her previous employer wouldn’t vouch for her. She had little kids.

The common thread in whistleblower stories is loneliness. Typically the employer has direct control over their ability to pursue another job in their profession. Many end up reviled as traitors, thieves, and liars. They often discover after going public that their loved ones have a limited appetite for sharing the ignominy. In virtually all cases, they end up having to start over, both personally and professionally.

There’s a lot more there but you get the gist.

Let’s stipulate that Taibbi and I come at this from very different perspectives. He’s a journalist who sees his profession as the ultimate check on abuse of political power. I’m someone who has held government security clearances at various points in my career, including at present, and very much believe in safeguarding the nation’s secrets.

To the extent the classification process is being abused by those in power—as I believe it was by the President himself in this case—it is the duty of those who have taken an oath to the Constitution to report it. Which is why Congress has created a formal whistleblower system. And which the whistleblower in this case followed.

Edward Snowden, on the other hand, was a Russian agent out to damage the security of the United States of America.

Bradley (now, Chelsea) Manning, was a dupe of Julian Assange—also effectively a Russian agent out to damage the security of the United States of America.

In both cases, they released vast amounts of classified information willy nilly, ostensibly to expose wrongdoing. But neither were “whistleblowers.” Snowden apparently became a government contractor with the express purpose of stealing classified information; he had no way of knowing ahead of time what secrets there were on which to blow a whistle. Manning’s case is much more complicated, having at least partly to do with his/her gender dysphoria.

Regardless, to the extent they were interesting in “blowing a whistle,” there were channels to do so within the confines of the system. Neither attempted to do so.

Drake’s case, with which I’m much less familiar, is of a different piece. He had misgivings about an NSA program and reported those through the designated channels, including the Congressional oversight committees, and got nowhere. Eventually, he went to press with his concerns but claims he was scrupulous in making sure that nothing he revealed was classified. He’s an unauthorized* leaker, a practice about which I have mixed feelings, and also a “whistleblower,” since he went through legitimate channels.

To me, the fact that the Ukraine whistleblower seems to be enjoying wide support within intelligence and other national security circles is a sign that he did the right thing, not that he’s not a whistleblower.

I don’t have sufficient information to know whether Drake was on the right side in his dispute with his agency’s leadership. But he was simply on the losing side of a debate over two programs. That the one ultimately chosen was apparently an expensive boondoggle vindicates him somewhat, obviously, but it doesn’t mean the other side was guilty of misfeasance, much less malfeasance.

Going to the press, as Mark Felt did under the “Deep Throat” alias during the Watergate affair, can certainly be justified. And, in his case, it was purely a matter of crimes to achieve domestic political goals, with no classified information at stake. But, in most of these cases, there’s a legitimate route to expose genuine wrongdoing. Even Felt could have gone to Congress rather than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein; indeed, he may well have been more effective had he done so.


*Quite often, “leaks” to the press are authorized by appropriate authorities for a variety of legitimate and questionable purposes. I have mixed feelings about that practice as well but it’s of a different piece.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. KM says:

    So what? Unless you martyr yourself and utterly ruin your life to bring down evil, you’re somehow not a legit “whistleblower” but some kind of hipster imitation? Is Taibbi trying to argue that unless you smash yourself on the rocks of injustice, you’re just some wannabe snitch looking for attention?

    Ideally, it’s every American’s duty to confront wrong-doing and corruption in their government or private sector organizations via proper channels and procedures. Of course, that line of thinking also assumes those reports will be followed up on correctly and nothing bad happens to the one who’s done their job. It’s sadly true, however, that’s calling out corruption tends to ruin your life because bad guys don’t play fair. Snitches get stitches isn’t a cute little rhyme but a reality. Still, it’s utterly bizarre to lionize martyrdom for this type of thing and discredit someone who’s lucky enough to *not* get screwed over for doing the right thing (yet, anyways). You *shouldn’t* be punished for doing the right thing so why use that as a reason to say someone’s not “a real whisteblower”? For once, they can seemingly still live a normal life so they are no True Scotsman Whistleblower!!

  2. Paul L. says:

    I’m someone who has held government security clearances at various points in my career, including at present, and very much believe in safeguarding the nation’s secrets.

    It should never have been revealed that the US Government secretly mass collects data on the communications on all US citizens.

  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    The fact that Snowden ended up in Moscow has significance, but in itself doesn’t seem conclusive to me. I’m curious to know what “Snowden was a Russian spy, who got a job specifically to get secrets” came from.

    As to Matt Taibi, I have to agree that I’m not sure what he expects our takeaway to be. I find it highly significant, as well, that this particular whistleblower has a lot of support within the ranks of government – it highlights just how far off the rails the Administration is.

  4. @Paul L.:

    It should never have been revealed that the US Government secretly mass collects data on the communications on all US citizens.

    Snowden could have gone the whistleblower route. Instead he stole files from NSA servers and ran off to Russia. He is no whistleblower and he’s no patriot.

  5. Jen says:

    What an utterly incorrect hot take from Taibbi.

    Most big corporations have ombudsman offices in order *to facilitate* exactly what we’re talking about with respect to the call re: Ukraine–a clear, defined process that employees can follow to disclose wrongdoing WITHOUT being punished.

    His reference points aren’t whistleblowers, which colors his perspective on this.

  6. Andy says:

    As a former member of the intelligence community, I agree with your take completely James and this whistleblower following proper procedure is exactly why he/she has the support of most of the community.

    @Paul L.:

    It should never have been revealed that the US Government secretly mass collects data on the communications on all US citizens.

    If that was all Snowden did, you might have an argument. But Snowden stole every single piece of classified information he could get his hands on – not just the information on domestic collection. And, as James stated, he had already decided to get a job to harvest information before he even knew those programs existed.

    He then took that trove of information, fled to Hong Kong (!!), gave some of that info to the Chinese government to gain passage out (specifically, we know he told the Chinese about Chinese servers the NSA had compromised – he may have provided them with more than that) and ended up in the warm embrace of the FSB. Whether that was all be design or whether he was a dupe is yet to be determined, but providing Russia and China with legitimate national security information completely unrelated to domestic US activities is simply not defendable and it’s certainly not what a legitimate whistleblower would do.

    And Chelsea Manning did much the same thing – She didn’t just leak the stuff she thought was wrong or illegal, she released entire databases of information to a Russian front group – which then used that information to try to damage the credibility of the US and exposed sources and methods to real and potential enemies. And what was in there that was actual whistleblower? Not much of anything.

  7. mattbernius says:

    Matt grabs popcorn and sits down to enjoy watching what happens when others make the mistake of trying to have a discussion about facts with Paul…

    This gonna get good!

    Beyond that, I agree with everything you wrote James.

  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    Easy tell: anyone who writes an extended article on Whistleblowing without a single mention of William Binney is arguing in bad faith and should be ignored.

  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Andy: Yeah, I have to agree that handing stuff over to the Chinese (I assumed that happened, but I’ve never seen any documentation on it) kind of took the shine off of Snowden’s lustre for me. I am glad, however, that the information practices toward US citizens was brought to light.

    Likewise, Manning’s data dump didn’t seem to have any point to it at all other than, “OMG, these people say naughty things about each other in private” Still, I find Manning a somewhat sympathetic character, because of my own daughter’s transition.

  10. Kathy says:

    When Christians faced one of many rounds of persecution in the Roman Empire, the Church was conscientious enough to remind their followers not to pursue martyrdom. They didn’t tell them to do what was necessary to survive, which caused much trouble down the road as well as many martyrs; but at least they didn’t say “No true Christian comes out of this alive.”

    The point of blowing the whistle, is to call official attention to wrongdoing and, ideally, having it stopped and the perpetrators punished or at least removed from their posts. The purpose is not to suffer retaliation, losing one’s job and livelihood, going to prison, getting beat up, or getting killed for one’s principles.

  11. Gustopher says:

    Tiabbi is really full of himself, and everything he writes (much of it good) has to be read with that in mind. I think Matt Tiabbi is trying to frame leakers as respectable whistleblowers. I’d agree with him that the two situations are very different, but his leakers are not whistleblowers.

    And, I would further split leaker into two camps:
    – those who are revealing significant abuses and are motivated by patriotism, such as Reality Winner and arguably Snowden
    – twits who are releasing stuff Willy-nilly, like Chelsea Manning

    That first group may have claim to the term whistleblower, at least in spirit. If there is no effective whistleblower process, that type of leaking will happen.

    Also, the attacks on the Trumpgate whistleblower from this administration is making it more likely that others will go press rather than the IG. Attacking the whistleblower makes American intelligence less secure.

  12. SKI says:

    As a Compliance Officer, Taibbi’s take horrifies me with its complete wrongness.

    It isn’t “bizarre”, it is nonsensical and demonstrates profound ignorance that is truly shocking.

  13. wr says:

    @Gustopher: “Tiabbi is really full of himself”

    I think Taibbi sees how Greenwald went from journalist respected by the left for his fight for civil rights to Trump-worshipping assclown on Fox and decided he wants a piece of that action.

  14. dazedandconfused says:



    I think the revelation that Assange and Wikileaks are Russian compromised ends the mystery of routing Snowden’s “escape” through Moscow. I imagine the lot as children messing around in a shark tank wearing bacon suits. The old KGB guys found themselves some easy marks there.

  15. Jay L Gischer says:

    I realize this is OT, but does nobody here have a reaction to the Syria/Turkey situation? I’m kind of surprised by that.

  16. Moosebreath says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    “I realize this is OT, but does nobody here have a reaction to the Syria/Turkey situation? ”

    There is another thread on it here.

  17. Anonne says:

    1. Snowden wasn’t planning to stay in Russia. He was traveling through non-extradition countries and was on his way to Ecuador when Kerry canceled his passport, so when he landed in Moscow for his transfer, he couldn’t go any farther. And he’d destroyed his access to information so he had nothing to give them.

    2. Manning exposed war crimes for which no one has been held to account, things that should disturb anyone with a functioning conscience. And no one other than Manning has been actually been harmed by the release of that information. The government has never presented any evidence of actual harm.

    3. Taibbi’s criticizing the media more than anything else. His point is that because this whistleblower is serving up information that is politically convenient, they’re being celebrated. Others who have gone up the proper channels got the wrath of their superiors and the government, having their lives destroyed. The Obama administration, paragon of transparency that it was, has charged more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act more than all other administrations combined. But because it was a Democratic administration, under a popular president, those people were to be reviled. Now, because this president is not popular, these whistleblowers are being celebrated. Had Trump been Obama, the reaction would have been very different. More like how it was when Obama was caught on a hot mic trying to reassure Medvedev that he was going to wait until after elections were over to continue with his Russian Reset plans and have “more flexibility” to negotiate on missile defense. That is, only a small segment of the media would care and it’s gone in a few days. But since this disclosure serves political purpose, it’s being treated differently. These whistleblowers are not going to be sued, arrested and financially bankrupted, among other deleterious consequences. These might get a spot on CNN later on.

  18. Jen says:


    has charged more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act more than all other administrations combined

    I’m curious–are you referring to Snowden, Manning, etc.? Or are there others?

    Because as most of us have noted above, Snowden and Manning did not follow the clearly established channels to report wrongdoing. I listened to Snowden’s interview on Fresh Air not that long ago, and while I understood what he was wrestling with, he decided to go to journalists–this is a leak, not whistleblowing–rather than the established channels. He did so for a reason, but that doesn’t change the fact that that decision means he is NOT a “whistleblower” he is instead someone who leaked.

    Same, really, with Manning.

    I have no idea why others are applauding the whistleblower in the current situation, but for me it is because the person *followed the process* that has been established. This person would have been walking into the open arms of the press; they chose not to go that route.

    Where intelligence matters are concerned, I have respect for those who follow rules.

  19. John Walton says:

    @Jen: Manning revealed to his court-martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, that he tried to leak US state secrets to the Washington Post, New York Times and Politico before he turned in frustration to WikiLeaks.

  20. Leaking to the media is not “whistleblowing” under Federal law.

  21. Anonne says:

    Obviously it’s not legal due to the nature of having to expose secret communications or having to violate secret processes. But leaking to the media is still considered whistleblowing to the lay public, as it is the people of the United States to whom this disclosure is intended. When the chain of command is corrupt, what other options do you have? You would just have your life destroyed, with minimal media coverage. Look at Reality Winner.

  22. Andrew Mcguiness says:

    Edward Snowden, on the other hand, was a Russian agent out to damage the security of the United States of America.

    Bradley (now, Chelsea) Manning, was a dupe of Julian Assange—also effectively a Russian agent out to damage the security of the United States of America.

    Three falsehoods in two sentences, offered without supporting evidence.

  23. DrDaveT says:


    When the chain of command is corrupt, what other options do you have?

    You go to the Inspector General, just like the Ukraine whistleblower did.

  24. SKI says:

    there are a bunch of options…

    To whom do I report wrongdoing ?
    Personnel have many options for making a Protected Disclosure, several of which do not require going
    through your chain of command. They include :
    • Your supervisor ;
    • Personnel in your direct chain of command up to and including your agency head ;
    • The Director of National Intelligence (DNI 😉
    • Your agency’s IG, via HOTLINE phone, email, or in person … you can report anonymously ;
    • The Office of the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community (IC IG 😉
    • A congressional intelligence committee or member of a congressional intelligence committee
    consistent with specific reporting procedures summarized on the IC IG website [insert link to :
    https://www.dni.gov/index.php/about-this-site/contact-the-ig/how-to-file-a-whistlebiower-complaint%5D; and
    • Other officials designated to receive Protected Disclosures. Depending on the nature of the
    allegation, these designated officials may include other compliance offices, such as your agency’s
    Equal Employment Office (EEO), Office of General Counsel (OGC), your Intelligence Oversight ( 10 )
    officer, or your agency’s (or ODNI’s) Office of Civil Liberties, Privacy, and Transparency (CLPT .)


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