Why It’s Dangerous To Call Whistleblowers Heroes

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Exposing blatant criminal activity is generally a good thing. This is especially true when it’s being financed by, and wielded against, the same group–e.g., the American people.

The Manning and Snowden cases are dissimilar in a number of ways, but in both situations they are being labeled both heroes and traitors. Neither label is good, while both probably apply to various degrees.

I am generally pro-whistleblowing, with heavy caveats for national security secrets. The problem with rewarding and exalting whistleblowers as heroes is that leaking information properly requires extraordinary access to privileged information, impeccable judgement, and remarkable research, patience, wisdom, courage, and morality.

And when I say extraordinary access to information, I don’t mean having juicy information to leak; I mean having enough information to make the judgement call that leaking the information will result in more good than harm.

That’s hard.

And this is why we need to be extremely careful about blindly praising national security whistleblowers. First, it’s a clear violation of commitments that they made not to do that exact thing. Second, people with the ability to leak sensitive information are often full of excitement and ideology, but could be lacking in perspective.

While they might have the best of intentions there’s a decent chance–just based on how many positions there are like this–that they lack the information to know whether they’re doing more harm than good.

We need to simultaneously send two messages:

  1. Honoring your commitments and maintaining national security secrets, on the whole, is still something to aspire to.

  2. When you are certain that something is criminal, and that leaking it will cause more good than harm, it may need to be done.

That’s a high bar, and I’m worried that, once encouraged as potential heroes, many whistleblowers won’t do the research and soul-searching required to meet it.

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