NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: In a memo to reporters circulated back in June, the Associated Press spelled out why “leaker” was the more appropriate way to refer to both Snowden and Manning. “A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing,” explained Tom Kent, the AP standards editor. “It’s not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral.” For Snowden to have asserted that the NSA’s spying programs “corrupt the most basic notion of justice” and that “the US Constitution marks these programs as illegal” without a strong basis for saying so would indeed seem to undercut any claim that he is a “whistle-blower.” But as suggested by the sudden push in Congress to rein in the NSA’s telephone surveillance program, Snowden’s charges have struck a chord. More to the point, even his most unsparing critics would be hard pressed to deny that the activity Snowden exposed raises serious ethical questions about the NSA and that he reasonably believed that what he revealed was illegal. According to Louis Clark, president of the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading advocacy group for whistleblowers, this is the standard that employees who go public with allegations of abuse or wrongdoing must meet. Clark considers Snowden a prototypical whistleblower. When I repeated to him the Associated Press’s view, Clark said, “They flat-out have it wrong. And they’re allowing the administration and its defenders to better control the story by substituting the loaded term ‘leaker.’”

Of course, identifying someone as a whistleblower is equally loaded, in a positive way: it evokes the image of an intrepid truth-teller who sounds the alarm from inside an organization, often at great personal risk, in order to safeguard the public interest. “Muckraking by insiders” is among the earliest definitions of such conduct, appearing in a 1971 article by Taylor Branch in The Washington Monthly that was reprinted in Blowing the Whistle, a volume of essays and profiles published the following year that marked the first book-length treatment of the subject. In the book, Branch and his co-author, Charles Peters, traced the term whistleblowing back to “the bulbous-cheeked English bobby wheezing away on his whistle when the maiden cries ‘Stop, thief!’ By the 1960s, when it entered the popular lexicon, “whistle-blowing” had acquired a more glamorous aura, reflecting the adversarial spirit of the age. There is some irony to this, since whistleblowers tend to be not crusading radicals but rather by-the-book organization people who believe they are acting to preserve the integrity of the institutions they work for or the governments they serve, as the sociologists Myron Peretz Glazer and Penina Migdal Glazer concluded in their 1989 book, The Whistleblowers. According to another study, “They are, if anything, too trusting of the organization’s willingness to respond to their concerns”—and tend to discover otherwise the hard way. So it was with Frank Serpico, a police officer who reported evidence of rampant corruption within the NYPD to his superiors in 1967 and, a few years later, after nothing happened, disclosed what he’d witnessed to a reporter at The New York Times.

Ideally, this is what all whistleblowers do, going first to their superiors or other regulatory agencies and turning to the press only if their concerns are ignored. Snowden, of course, did not follow this script and went immediately to the media, a fact some have seized on to discredit him. “He went outside all the whistleblower avenues that were available to anyone in this government, including people who have classified information,” Mike Rogers, chair of House Intelligence Committee, noted on Meet the Press. But Rogers neglected to mention that several NSA whistleblowers have tested these internal channels in recent years, airing their concerns about unwarranted wiretapping before Congress, the Department of Justice, and the inspector general’s office. Their efforts eventually sparked a federal investigation—not of the NSA’s conduct but of their own. MORE