No, Hillary, Edward Snowden Didn’t Have Whistleblower Protections

“For employees in national security agencies, the protections are still a promise.”

Zhang Fan/Zuma

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked the Democratic presidential candidates if they considered National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to be a “hero,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this:

“He broke the laws of the United States. He could’ve been a whistleblower…He could’ve raised all the issues that have been raised…He stole very important information that has fallen into the wrong hands. I think he should not come up without being made to face the music.”

Snowden is one of the subjects about which Clinton has remained consistent, but she has a problem: When it comes to suggesting Snowden had whistleblower protections, she’s dead wrong. This, from a Washington Post piece published nearly two years ago:

Most federal employees who report waste, fraud and abuse have legal protections against retaliation by their bosses. If employees are retaliated against, the law defines certain procedures designed to get justice for whistbleblowers.

For employees in national security agencies, the protections are still a promise. National security contractors don’t even have that.

Snowden was a contractor for the NSA when he leaked classified information about top-secret surveillance programs to The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian.

That doesn’t take into account cases such as Thomas Drake’s, a former senior NSA executive who obeyed the law while trying to report problems within the NSA and found himself on the wrong side of a major investigation. He now works at an Apple store outside of Washington, DC. Admittedly, the law is fairly complicated, but as Politifact pointed out in January 2014, when the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald said Snowden did not have any whistleblower protections under the Espionage Act, his claim was “mostly true.” Greenwald received the classified information from Snowden.

Greenwald said that if Snowden returned to the United States, he would have no protections under the Espionage Act and would not be allowed to justify his actions in court. In terms of the law, Greenwald is literally correct.

Two other legal documents, however, could have provided Snowden some potential protections before he shared classified information with the press. But once he did, no law offers Snowden any shelter.

So before Clinton says Snowden “could have been a whistleblower,” she might want to double-check with a lawyer.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.