What is a whistleblower?

I spent all day today at the offices of the NECC Observer, the student newspaper on which I'm Copy Editor.  Since I had time for basically nothing else today, and I wrote a whole page of news on world events, here is one of my stories. Wikipedia (which is not a good primary source, but is a great place to get a general idea about a subject) has this to say about American whistleblowing legislation: “Whistleblowing in the U.S. is affected by a complex patchwork of contradictory laws.”

This complex patchwork is the reason that the laws relevant to Edward Snowden, and those relevant to Chelsea Manning, when defining who is and isn’t a whistleblower, are completely different. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, federal employees have a right to submit their concerns about "a violation of law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety."

Under that standard, a federal employee acting with the information Snowden had could have submitted it to the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) without fear of reprisal; however, according to a report by former federal employee Robert J. McCarthy, 98 percent of these reports are rejected. The report quotes the Government Accountability Project, saying "[t]he Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has a 3-219 track record against whistleblowers since Congress last reaffirmed the law in 1994."

There are two reasons that Snowden would not have been entitled to that protection. First, it only applies to federal employees: Snowden was a contractor, and so is entitled to no protection; second, Snowden leaked information to the Guardian, a UK newspaper.

There is no way to know whether Snowden would have used more conservative legitimate channels if any such channels existed for someone in his position.

Chelsea Manning is subjected to different regulations: above a certain rank, members of the military are actually required to blow the whistle on unethical behavior. They can be court-martialled if they don’t.

But Manning, being a Private, was below that threshold. She would only be subjected to the rule of the Non-disclosure agreements she would have signed on joining the military, making any kind of disclosure, even one motivated by conscience and judged to be in the public interest, illegal.

Neither Manning nor Snowden could possibly have approached their concerns in a way that the US government would see as legitimate. Though they both leaked information that, if addressed by the right person, would demand protection, both are by technicality outside the boundaries of that protection.

But the question about what to call these two is not just a matter of legal categorization. It also reflects a personal, moral conviction: did either of these two do the right thing? Was it in the public interest that the information they leaked be made known? There’s disagreement on that subject even within the staff here at the Observer.

The Associated Press has instructed their reporters to refer to Snowden and Manning as "Leakers," arguing that it's not appropriate for reporters striving for objectivity to choose terms loaded with a moral judgement.