Edward Snowden and whistleblowers: 'The truth sets you free'

Edward Snowden's leaks about the NSA's electronic surveillance make him one of the most damaging whistleblowers in history. But what drives loyal employees to reveal the truth? And how do they live with the backlash?

by Leo Benedictus, Leo Hickman and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian,

WATCH video: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden:

'I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things'


Annie Machon

A former MI5 officer, Machon resigned from the security service, along with her then partner David Shayler, in 1996, and blew the whistle on alleged failures and crimes, including illegal MI5 phone taps.

I think Edward Snowden is in for a rough ride. But the way he has run the whole exposure and disclosure of the crimes of the NSA and what they are doing against the American people and people around the world has been very sophisticated. Obviously, he will have taken on board the sort of security and extradition issues that he needs to think about. From what I can see, he has taken very careful steps to protect those closest to him. The message he is putting out now is why he is doing it, why it is important, why people need to listen to what he is saying. I think it has been very, very well done.

What the NSA is doing is turning the US and, by extension, the rest of the world into a Big Brother surveillance state. As soon as you get into this situation where the nuts and bolts of the internet Google, Facebook, a system we all use can be used to spy on us, whether those companies know it or not, we have no privacy whatsoever. And once we have no privacy on the internet, we lose any sense of freedom to express ourselves openly. We lose our freedom to download information and ingest information openly. So we lose free society. Free thought requires free media.

Annie Machon: 'They tell you to shut up, not rock the boat and follow orders.' Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

I hope the Obama administration has learned from prosecuting and persecuting multiple whistleblowers, Bradley Manning being just one of them. They are not winning the war of the desire for information to be free, the desire for people to be informed. I think normal young people within the intelligence agencies are going to think: Well, actually, we are doing this for good reasons not bad reasons. And they will speak out.

Often people who blow the whistle try to deal with the issue in-house. We certainly did. You go to your boss and say: "This is wrong." You say: "We should learn from mistakes made." And they tell you just to shut up, not rock the boat and follow orders.

What does it take to be a whistleblower? Often the very trait that attracts you to intelligence work that is, to make a real difference, protect your country's way of life and potentially save lives. To stand up against organisational groupthink and say: "This is wrong", knowing you face not just loss of career but also loss of liberty, takes courage and Snowden has that in spades.

Jesselyn Radack

A legal ethics adviser at the US Department of Justice during the aftermath of 9/11. When John Walker Lindh, the so-called "American Taliban", was captured in Afghanistan, she was asked by criminal prosecutors if they could question him without a lawyer present. She said not because he already had legal counsel, but she later found that her emails confirming this crucial information were missing from his file and prosecutors proceeded to question Lindh without representation. She resigned in protest and later blew the whistle anonymously via an article in Newsweek magazine.

My heart sank when I found my emails had been purged. I had sent 14 and only two remained in his prosecution file. I knew Lindh didn't have a lawyer present and he was facing the death penalty. I was young about the age of Edward Snowden so I asked a senior prosecutor for advice. He confirmed the emails had been purged. I called my husband and told him I was going to resign. He was very supportive. I managed to retrieve the missing emails and I photocopied them. A few hours later, I walked into my boss's office and tendered my resignation.

Within a few weeks I had another job. But it didn't last. A few weeks later, DoJ officials brazenly marched into my new law firm saying I was a criminal and that I had stolen documents. I was crying every day thinking about it all.

After an article in Newsweek magazine, my identity was [accidentally] revealed. This embarrassed me further at work. I faced prosecution and, in my defence, my lawyer said I was a whistleblower. But my firm put me on unpaid leave. I felt they had abandoned me. I was placed into a state of purgatory at work.

It actually brought me and my husband closer. However, some family members were disappointed. They thought I had thrown my education and career away. The government was calling me a traitor. You have to remember what that time after 9/11 was like. Most of my "friends" stopped talking to me. I got the cold shoulder from the soccer moms and at the synagogue. My two little kids lost all their playmates.

Our family income was cut in half. I was placed on the no-fly list. They tried to de-bar me from working in law. I ran up $100,000 in legal costs. From 2002 to 2006, I was defending multiple investigations. It really was David v Goliath. I was never able to work for a law firm again. But then I had another child. It kept me grounded. I was determined not to be chased out of the town I loved.

I do not regret it at all. How could you, if you knew someone's life was on the line? I have moved on and love what I do. [Radack is now the director of national security and human rights at the Government Accountability Project.]

I applaud Snowden. He is brave, courageous and clearly has a strong moral compass. But it is an incredibly isolating process. Most people don't wake up saying, "I'm going to be a whistleblower today". They struggle with it. It is a crisis of conscience.


Derek Pasquill: 'Whistleblower cases over the last 10years have got bigger and bigger.' Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Guardian

Derek Pasquill

A former Foreign Office official who was sacked but cleared of Official Secrets charges in 2008 for leaking documents about what Britain knew of the US's policy of extraordinary rendition, and guidance about which Muslim organisations ministers should embrace.

Snowden raises the whole question of civil liberties and of the government spying on people. It is a huge case. Whistleblower cases over the last 10 years have got bigger and bigger WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning. You can reveal things at the touch of a button. So governments might be quite concerned about the level of their security in the future.

Why do people blow the whistle? It comes down to intuition. Something's not quite right. I was in a specific position to do something. There were two strands the policy of "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects and confusion surrounding that term and concern about using the Muslim Council of Britain as a one-stop shop [for guidance on the British Muslim community]. It was a misguided policy, so I blew the whistle.

Snowden will be in a difficult position. I was dismissed by the Foreign Office for gross misconduct. I am now working on a project on 17th-century art.


Seth Freedman: 'The inevitable backlash was
sharp and swift.' Photograph: Linda Nylind for
The Guardian

Seth Freedman

The whistleblower at the centre of the gas price-fixing scandal in November 2012. He was working as UK wholesale gas price reporter for ICIS Heren when he noticed unusual movements in the market, which are still being investigated by the FSA and Ofgem.

I watched the interview with Snowden and he appears pretty unimpeachable it certainly doesn't seem as if he has any ulterior motive. He is a very inspiring figure for potential whistleblowers: he hasn't acted rashly; he has been very methodical in how he has gone about it. It is sobering because he has obviously realised that this could be the end of everything for him: his job, his relationships, everything. That is a very principled stand to take.

When I first worked in the City, as a coked-up teenage trader, I saw corruption around the clock, but I never spoke out. Too much to lose, I thought; too many consequences if I dared rock the boat. But this time round older, wiser, far more sober it wasn't so easy to stay silent. Every passing day brought more traders telling me the market was manipulated, and when hard evidence appeared to back up their claims and my bosses dragged their heels about approaching the regulators, I found myself standing at a familiar crossroads. This time I took the right turn.

The inevitable industry backlash was sharp and swift, and I was smeared in public, suspended from work and made a sector-wide pariah. Suspension turned to dismissal, and a journalist was asked to delve into my past.

I would do it again, but only just. My allegations were political dynamite, given the backdrop of recent financial scandals and the public's hatred of power companies, so I was well supported by press and politicians alike, and was empowered as a result. Most whistleblowers aren't anywhere near as protected, and suffer all the more for it.

I still look over my shoulder, wonder who is reading my emails or listening to my calls, but I have done nothing wrong. I am not the bad guy, despite my firm's clamourous claims to the contrary. You see the best in some people in a situation like this, but you see the worst in many more. Apathetic regulators, amoral management, corporate automatons all paid handsomely to dispense with principles and just protect the industry by any means necessary. Politicians talk the talk in public, but in private they admit they don't have a clue how the markets work and thus have precious little idea how to make change for the better. The fear that my allegations and evidence will simply be swept under the carpet is one of the most distressing parts of the whole experience. But still I have no regrets: I did what I could to try to right a scandalous wrong.

Eileen Chubb: 'I never regret it.'
Photograph: Neil Spence

Eileen Chubb

In 1999, Chubb and six other care workers spoke out against abuses they had witnessed against elderly residents at a Bupa-run home in Kent. She has since founded Compassion in Care.

Until I blew the whistle, I lived in a different country. I had an impeccable work record, I had been promoted, but then my life was turned upside-down. After we left the care home, it was clear we were unemployable. I would ring up for a job, but as soon as I said my name, I would get no further. They would say: "Oh sorry, the job has just gone." That happened dozens of times. Sometimes, I would be asked outright: "Are you one of those Bupa women?"

We were reduced to selling our belongings in car boot sales. Then we would put the money together and see who the worst-affected was that week. Some of the people in our group were evicted from their homes. Others are living in hostels and caravans and going to food banks. I have got no pension, no savings, nothing. And we are in that position because we did the right thing.

The problem is, people don't trust whistleblowers. There is a stigma attached to it. I have lost friends as a result. "It's not your problem," people say, but once your eyes are open to what is going on and what happens to people, you can never close them again, and that is a very lonely place to be.

My husband has been an absolute rock. But some people are not so lucky, and this can crack open their whole lives. Edward Snowden should be given a medal. People who do the right things, such as he and Bradley Manning, should be recognised and celebrated instead of being tarred and punished.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn't blown the whistle. I never regret it, though. The people I tried to defend were my friends, and if I had done anything different, I would have lost part of myself.

Ian Foxley (on left) with Peter Gardiner, who both
co-chair Whistleblowers UK. Photograph: Geoff Pugh

Ian Foxley

In 2010, Ian Foxley was working as the programme director for a British subsidiary of defence giant EADS on a 1.96bn contract to modernise the communications systems for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. When he came across evidence of corruption and bribery he fled the country and reported it to British officials, triggering a Serious Fraud Office investigation. He is now chair of Whistleblowers UK.

Snowden seems like a very intelligent chap. But his and Bradley Mannings's problem is that they were part of intelligence organisations and had signed up to that. They should have taken it up with their chain of command. I have a problem with what Manning did, releasing everything like that. Snowden also took an ideological stand. He should have resigned on moral grounds and threatened to his seniors that he would go the press if they didn't act.

In my case, I started detecting "red flags". Certain things just weren't making sense. There were lots of potential factors that could explain some of the odd behaviour I saw. Perhaps it was just the cultural difference of working in Saudi Arabia? But then the balance tipped. I knew something was wrong. I wrestled with it all night I call it my "Gethsemane Night". But by the morning I had decided what to do. I had to secure the hard evidence of wrong-doing and then take it to a trusted external agency.

I soon realised I had been utterly betrayed. A Saudi princess [representing his company] told me in a meeting at the top of a tall office tower that they would have me arrested. I knew within seconds this meant my life was in danger. I had realised before that whistleblowing might jeopardise my job, but not my life.

The local MoD military office thankfully got me out of Saudi. But I didn't go home. I found a safe place. I needed to make sure that the documents could be released if I disappeared. I then told the MoD that if they did nothing about this then I would go to the papers. The MoD police took it up. I knew then that the big boys would take notice.

I have noticed since how many whistleblowers are Catholics like me. Maybe it's our in-built moral code? It would have been moral cowardice to have walked away. But there were certainly repercussions. We lost a fortune my job, our lifestyle. No one in the industry would hire me. I was too hot to handle. Just ask my wife what it has done to my health. It has had stressful implications for my wife, friends and children. We have run through our savings and it has caused our health to degrade. You don't just lose your job when you blow the whistle.

Paul Moore: 'I thought about killing myself numerous times.' Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Paul Moore

As an executive at HBOS, Moore drew the board's attention to excessive risks that he believed the bank was taking. He was subsequently dismissed in 2004.

There you were, at the top of your profession, earning 700,000 a year, everything that your children want they can have. You are a respected person, people listen to you, you have a sense of achievement. And it all gets taken away. You are then at home, and you feel useless, and you begin to think they are right and you are wrong, because they crush it out of you. Imagine how you feel about the way you are.

Would anybody give me a job, or even talk to me about a job? No. You get treated like an outcast, a leper, toxic waste. I remember getting a text from a supplier of training services saying: "Paul, I hope you won't mind me saying this, but please don't be in contact with me. I'm sure you can understand why."

Whistleblowers speak up because they love the organisation they work for, then they experience pretty much the same sequence of events. 1) They are ignored. 2) They are demeaned. 3) They are dismissed. 4) After they speak up, they are publicly rubbished. 5) Everybody, even the people who were their friends, scatter like the four winds.

Think about the emotional upset of a child who gets treated really unfairly. It's a very deeply wounding thing, but you can get over that relatively quickly. What is most difficult is the way your friends scatter. It takes a very long time to come to terms with that.

If Snowden has gone through a proper process to try to get this issue dealt with internally, and that hasn't worked, then absolutely he should speak up. It is only by people like that speaking up that we actually see things.

I thought about killing myself numerous times. If it hadn't been for my wife, I would probably be dead. But I now am the person that I always was, so it has all turned out well in the end. The truth does set you free.

Helene Donnelly: 'It's only through brave people that these things can be revealed.' Photograph: Central News

Helene Donnelly

As nurse in the A&E department, Donnelly spent years insisting that there were serious problems at Stafford Hospital before they eventually came to light.

I don't know the Snowden case, but I think that if anybody has genuine concerns that are in the public interest, then they are duty-bound to raise them. If you're a nurse, especially, it's part of your professional code of conduct to speak up if you see things that are not right.

I do appreciate how hard it is, however. Initially, I found it quite traumatic especially dealing with the backlash from my colleagues. Although the vast majority supported what I was doing, a lot felt that they had to do it anonymously. People are worried about losing their jobs, or threats from their workmates, or maybe the implication for their families, and I don't want to dismiss those fears. You may go through the process of sticking your neck on the line, and then nothing changes, which is clearly very demoralising. But it's only through brave people that these things can be revealed and hopefully changes made.

I think there is a shift now, and that's beginning to change albeit very slowly. Hopefully "whistleblower" is becoming not a stigma to be afraid of, but something to take pride in.

I am now working for a different trust, Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent, where I have been given the rather grand title of ambassador for cultural change. Essentially, I am promoting a healthy culture, the importance of raising concerns, and how to go about doing it, as well as offering support to staff. This trust is very keen to get the message out that it wants to hear from its staff if things are not right. I am only able to do that because I have been through it myself.

Gary Walker: 'I cannot ever work in the NHS again, because I took on the people at the top.' Photograph: Andy Weekes/Rex Features

Gary Walker

When he was chief of the United Lincolnshire Hospitals trust, Walker noticed that its hospitals were becoming dangerously full. He was sacked when he refused to disregard the problem.

I think these leaks from Snowden are just the beginning of us all starting to ask questions about what information governments have got on us. For him, I suspect he is going to be unemployable. Certainly no government office is ever going to hire him. And I would have thought most big companies would be concerned in case he whistleblows on them. The reality for him is that he did the right thing but, like most whistleblowers, that is probably not going to be rewarded.

In my case, I have found not many people want to employ me, apart from charities. I am also doing lots of work with individuals who need help. I have even done a law degree and represented people in employment tribunals to help them fight their case. The reality is that while I had a "promising career", apparently, I cannot ever work in the NHS again, because I took on the people at the top.

There is also the toll it takes on family and friends. I was in a relationship when I voiced my concerns, and that relationship broke down after six years. The house was on the line, and we were 100,000 in debt with legal fees. I wasn't well for part of it either, and was on antidepressants for a period of time. But would I do it again? Of course. The safety of patients has to be what comes first.

This article was amended on 12 June 2013 to correct the spelling of ICIS Heren. An earlier version misspelled it as ICIS Heron.