Dubbed a traitor by House Speaker John Boehner and yet hailed as a brave whistleblower by Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden’s leaks about National Security Agency data collection techniques have ignited public debate about privacy, security and the scope of U.S. government surveillance activities.
But legally speaking, the 29-year old, self described high school dropout isn’t really a whistleblower: “Whistleblowers are individuals who have engaged in lawful disclosure,” said R. Scott Oswald, managing principal of The Employment Law Group, a DC-based law firm that represents whistleblowers, including some in the intelligence community.
Snowden, however, leaked classified information subject to a court order, which is hardly lawful, Oswald said.
“What Mr. Snowden did here was not protected and was illegal under our laws, so it’s not correct to say he’s a whistleblower in that sense,” Oswald said. “What he is, I think, is a conscientious objector.”
“He has information that he believes is important for the American public to know,” he said. “What he has decided to do is to commit an illegal act in order to have that information disseminated, so he is subject to criminal prosecution.”
The whistleblower distinction is getting closer attention in newsrooms, too. The Huffington Post, citing a memo it obtained, reported Monday that Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent told staff that “whether the actions exposed by Snowden and [WikiLeaks source Bradley] Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point.”
Whether he’s a whistleblower or not, one thing is for sure. Snowden is now officially a former Booz Allen employee.
With its famous former employee’s precise whereabouts unknown, Booz Allen on Tuesday released a statement confirming that it fired Snowden over violations to the firm’s policy and code of ethics.