Real-world whistleblowing vs Malcolm Gladwell's bizarre theory of whistleblowing

Malcolm Gladwell has an article in this month's New Yorker that dismisses Edward Snowden's claims to legitimacy and legal protection, while elevating Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers breach to an act of heroism; Gladwell sets out criteria for legitimate whistleblowing that treats Snowden as a "radicalized hacker" and Ellsberg as a "good leaker," and says that Snowden should have gone through official channels, rather than disclosing to journalists.

Like many establishment figures who seek to (literally or figuratively) assassinate Snowden, Gladwell puts the "good leaking" in the safe and distant past, and insists that modern leakers are just doing it wrong -- they should be like Ellsberg, a Harvard-educated DC insider who rubbed elbows with Kissinger.

The problem is that the Ellsberg method that Gladwell invoked is a gross misrepresentation of what Ellsberg actually did; and it's also a denial of what has actually happened to the whistleblowers who tried the method Gladwell described. NSA whistleblowers who went through channels -- Thomas Drake, William Binney, and others -- were targeted for legal retaliation and had their lives ruined.

For outsiders, the story isn't much better. In a fantastic essay on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Deeplinks blow, executive director Cindy Cohn describes what happened when Mark Klein, a retired AT&T engineer who had been ordered to build a secret spying room for the NSA to use while tapping into AT&T's fiber backbone, came to EFF with documentation of what he knew. John Negroponte, then Director of National Intelligence, used his influence to get the LA Times to spike a story on the spying, the US government denied and stonewalled, and the senators whom EFF reached out to strung the organization along, while DoJ lawyers got the courts to keep all of Klein's evidence under seal for so long that the press stopped reporting on it.

In other words, Gladwell's theory of "good leaking" is a disaster for actual good leakers. It took Snowden's amazing act of courage and integrity to get any kind of public debate and action on the US government's program of illegal mass surveillance.

Part of the reason Mr. Gladwell’s fantasy-based critique of Snowden bothers us is that we’ve tried a version of the “Ellsberg Good Leaker path” for our original NSA whistleblower, Mark Klein, starting in 2006.

Mr. Klein was in tech support at AT&T. Like Snowden, he didn’t go to Harvard, pal around with Kissinger, or serve in the intelligence services. But he had real documents and direct testimony demonstrating that, at the behest of the NSA, AT&T was (and still is) making illegal copies of Internet traffic through key network junctures. This includes the juncture in a building on Folsom Street in San Francisco. After copying, searching is conducted through the full content of much of that information, especially messages going to and from abroad but including millions of Americans' communications. We now know that the government calls this program “UPSTREAM,” and calls its searching through the actual content of messages “about” searching, but we didn’t know these names in 2006. This was a big, new program with profound legal and constitutional implications. It deserved (and still deserves) serious public and judicial consideration.

So what happened? Mr. Klein went to the press before coming to EFF, but a Los Angeles Times story about his discoveries was famously spiked by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte who intimidated now New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet out of running it. Finally, the New York Times did publish a story but the government just kept issuing carefully worded denials.

We tried another part of the “Ellsberg” strategy. We took Mark to Washington to try to increase the chance of Congressional assistance as well as to try to bring more public attention to what his evidence revealed. We even managed to have a press briefing on Capitol Hill and a few meetings with staffers.

But we couldn’t get a hearing on Mark’s whistleblower information, couldn’t keep the press on it, and couldn’t penetrate the assumptions and elitist narrative about whistleblowers.2

But Mr. Klein was right, and the information he brought forward was important. Nevertheless, it took the "flood" of the Snowden revelations seven years later to move the ball forward in a significant way including the end of the telephone records program, greatly increased corporate use of encryption to protect users and even baby steps toward protecting foreigners abroad. But there’s still never been a Congressional hearing focused on the Upstream program, much less one that let someone like Mr. Klein, Mr. Binney, Mr. Drake or Mr. Wiebe say what they know. We’ll be pushing further when the authority the government now relies upon for the program, FISA Amendments Act Section 702, is up for renewal next December.

So thanks for the name check, Mr. Gladwell. We do appreciate it and would welcome a chance to give this Snowberg or the next an internship at EFF. But whistleblowers should be judged on whether they brought seriously improper and illegal government or corporate activities to light, not based on who they are or where they sit in an elite hierarchy. That doesn’t mean that there can never be any potential consequences for whistleblowing. But making public something that people in a functioning democracy deserve to know should take a whistleblower firmly out of the reach of the Espionage Act or other serious felonies that the government put in its indictment against Mr. Snowden.

Whistleblowers Don’t Need Elite Credentials To Help Protect Us from Government Overreach [Cindy Cohn and Karen Gullo/EFF]

(Image: Snowden, Gage Skidmore, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. Having performed an extensive reading of Malcolm Gladwell's works, it seems to me that he is simply a fabricator of his own realities. His books tell tales all meticulously chosen to illustrate some basic point he wants to make, regardless of whether that point has any independent merit or even usefulness. Remove the supportive anecdotes and there appears little of substance left.

    Or is that what all such authors do? I suppose they have to make money somehow. Just wish they didn't waste our time so much.

  2. petzl says:

    Having performed a cursory reading of Malcolm Gladwell's works, I would agree: he creates these simulacra, then falls in love with them and proclaims them as universals.

  3. I think there would be a very useful test to see whether or not your hesitation is a good idea:

    Place Mr. Gladwell at a cocktail party. Plant a subject-matter-expert on whatever has caught his attention recently at the same party, unbeknownst to him. Preferably a female one.

    Looking at his publication history, he strikes me as a guy who can spin fairly thin knowledge of something into a great story. Let him do so for the pleasantly inebriated onlookers.

    When he finally collides with the subject matter expert; observe. If he is smart, and humble, enough to STFU and listen; he at least isn't irredeemable. If he puffs up and begins mansplaining; prep him for ontological reassignment.

  4. gmoke says:

    Malcolm Gladwell comes out the Rightwing Nutjob training grounds:
    "During college, Gladwell received journalism training at the National Journalism Center, an outfit that worked with the tobacco industry 'to train budding journalists . . . to get across our side of the story,' according to an internal Philip Morris document.

    "After college, Gladwell worked at the right-wing American Spectator, the Moonie-owned Insight and a neocon-Christian fundamentalist thinktank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was 'established by neoconservatives to promote an increased role of religion in public policy and turn back the influence of secularism.'”

    He's a light-weight popularizer of half-baked theories with a good voice and spectacular hair. Don't take anything he writes seriously. He doesn't.

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