The difference between a Whistleblower and a Leaker

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2.2.2 Definition of Whistleblower and Leaker: Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks  


It is pertinent to establish the difference between freedom of speech and national security interests. In critically examining at the definition of whistleblowing when considering the actions of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. It can be argued that, in the three jurisdictions of this Thesis, the constitutional traditions and institutions has a limitation upon which a right of person to actively expose government activities publicly. Therefore, the social value of whistleblowing and national security need to be considered from different perspective in understanding what is whistleblowing and leaking.

            Whistleblowing refers to raising concern about workplace wrongdoing such as financial fraud, breach of the law, and unethical business processes. This act is often claimed to be in defense of the public interest and can be directed to employers or external individuals and/or corporate organisations[1] On the other hand, a leaker expose government secrets and undermine the executive ability to control the dissemination of the information to the public.[2]    

In any step to impose criminal sanctions against individuals that expose secrets of government operations, consideration of the constitutional defence of freedom of speech ought to gauge. It will be appropriate to weigh the social value of whistleblowing/leak when applying various criminal laws especially the illegality of the type of secrecy that is being unveil.

2.2.3. Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden’s case with the US government proves a fact that political thinkers differ in their perceptions of whistleblowing. Looking at the moral and political seriousness with which the infamous whistleblower exposed the scale and scope of NSA’s (National Security Agency) covert surveillance activities. Whistleblowing can be describing as a disclosure from an active or retired employee of a government agency to the public, including the media, international organisations or those in authority, about unethical practices and other illegal activities of employers.

The focus of this definition, however, underplays the dire consequences of whistleblowing. Threats of repatriation from the US government also shows the extent which countries can go to defend ‘national interest’ and deter potential whistleblowers from exposing government secrets particularly those that negate good corporate governance and human rights laws. Snowden was made a scapegoat for defending the public interest and his predicament contradicts US foreign policy standards on the sovereignty of independent nations.

2.3.4. Chelsea Manning

Like Snowden’s case, Manning highlights the moral side of whistleblowing. Since the days of Saddam Hussein (Iraq) and Osama bin Laden (Saudi Arabia), successive US governments have brazenly overstepped foreign policy boundaries with economic sanctions and military interventions in the Middle East with or without approval from the United Nations (UN). Although the US cited political instability, genocide and terrorism, among others, as reasons for the policy decisions, Manning bravely fought against the status quo by disclosing the sensitive information.

Before Manning was arrested, she was assigned to an Iraq-based Army unit where she gained access to classified databases. In 2010, the soldier shared some confidential information with WikiLeaks and confided her action to an online friend, Adrian Lamo, who indirectly alerted the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command thereby exposing the crime. In this regard, the action taken to defend moral standards against unethical or illegal practices by the employer can be deem as whistleblowing or leaking.

As an exemplary whistleblower/leaker acting in defense of the public interest without expectation of financial rewards, the American activist and former intelligence analysts showed that employees in private and public establishments have a duty to stand against organisational wrongdoings. In other words, whistleblowing may be defined as a moral and ethical practice aimed at eradicating corruption, preserving human dignity and fostering global peace.

But despite Manning’s contributions to global politics, she still has dual image of a hero (outside the US) and a villain in her own country just like Snowden. She was arrested and prosecuted for exposing America’s violation of international laws in addition to its negligence of fundamental human rights and economic exploitation of countries (crisis/conflict zones). In most cases, the US military interventions arguably have exploitative economic undertone as in Libya and Iraq. Notwithstanding the underlying motives, the widening misconception of the term whistleblower or leaker arises when using Manning’s case as an example which proves that ‘public interest’ in the definition differ hugely.  

Manning was charged for violating the Espionage Act and other punishable offences which include releasing thousands of classified and sensitive military/diplomatic documents to Wikileaks. Basically, there’s an issue of conflict of interest when whistleblowing activities are directed against governments or large organisations, and these individual examples show the redundancy of whistleblower protection laws around the world.

2.3.5. Wikileaks

Wikileaks is popularly known as the international non-profit organisation which publishes news leaks from anonymous sources in different countries. Established in 2006 by Sunshine Press, Iceland, the media house owned by an Australian internet activist, Julian Assange, has released millions of classified documents. Tops among the list of documents are detailed information about the US equipment expenditure and business interests in the Afghanistan war, activities in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as corruption investigation in Kenya, among others.

Wikileaks in 2015 released documents detailing espionage activities by the US National Security Agency (NSA) on successive French presidents: Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, including cabinet ministers and French ambassadors to the U.S. Thus, from the purview of Wikileaks, whistleblowing is defined as the act of receiving and exposing sensitive and confidential documents, audio-visual files or verifiable reports about illegal or unethical practices by individuals, governments and public or private sector organisations. The ultimate purpose of whistleblowing/leak in the three cases is to spark public outrage and ultimately enforce justice, fairness and equity in political, socio-cultural and economic environments.

[1] Abazi V. ‘Whistleblowing in Europe: A New Era at Legal Protection’ (Cambridge 2019) 44

[2] Mintz, S. ‘Whistleblowing Considerations for External Auditors under Dodd-Frank: A Blueprint for Future Research’ (2015) 19; 99-128 Research on Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Accounting


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