• Edward Snowden’s Long Flight: What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought

    July 19, 2013

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    What a Whistleblower Thinks a Fellow Whistleblower Might Have Thought

    This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

    As a State Department whistleblower, I think a lot about Edward Snowden. I can’t help myself. My friendships with other whistleblowers like Tom Drake, Jesslyn Radack, Daniel Ellsberg, and John Kiriakou lead me to believe that, however different we may be as individuals, our acts have given us much in common. I suspect that includes Snowden, though I’ve never had the slightest contact with him. Still, as he took his long flight from Hong Kong into the unknown, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking some of my thoughts, or I his. Here are five things that I imagine were on his mind (they would have been on mine) as that plane took off.

    I Am Afraid

    Whistleblowers act on conscience because they encounter something so horrifying, unconstitutional, wasteful, fraudulent, or mismanaged that they are overcome by the need to speak out. There is always a calculus of pain and gain (for others, if not oneself), but first thoughts are about what you’ve uncovered, the information you feel compelled to bring into the light, rather than your own circumstances.

    In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. I didn’t expect the Department of State to attack me. Snowden was different in this. He had the example of Bradley Manning and others to learn from. He clearly never doubted that the full weight of the U.S. government would fall on him.

    He knew what to fear. He knew the Obama administration was determined to make any whistleblower pay, likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty). He also knew what his government had done since 9/11 without compunction: it had tortured and abused people to crush them; it had forced those it considered enemies into years of indefinite imprisonment, creating isolation cells for suspected terrorists and even a pre-trial whistleblower. It had murdered Americans without due process, and then, of course, there were the extraordinary renditions in which U.S. agents kidnapped perceived enemies and delivered them into the archipelago of post-9/11 horrors.

    Sooner or later, if you’re a whistleblower, you get scared. It’s only human. On that flight, I imagine that Edward Snowden, for all his youthful confidence and bravado, was afraid. Would the Russians turn him over to Washington as part of some secret deal, maybe the sort of spy-for-spy trade that would harken back to the Cold War era?

    Even if he made it out of Moscow, he couldn’t have doubted that the full resources of the NSA and other parts of the U.S. government would be turned on him. How many CIA case officers and Joint Special Operations Command types did the U.S. have undercover in Ecuador? After all, the dirty tricks had already started. The partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke Snowden’s story, had his laptop stolen from their residence in Brazil.  This happened only after Greenwald told him via Skype that he would send him an encrypted copy of Snowden’s documents. 

    In such moments, you try to push back the sense of paranoia that creeps into your mind when you realize that you are being monitored, followed, watched. It’s uncomfortable, scary. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, or when whatever government has given you asylum changes its stance vis-a-vis the U.S. When the knock comes at the door, who will protect you? So who can doubt that fear made the journey with him?

    Could I Go Back to the U.S.?

    Amnesty International was on target when it stated that Snowden “could be at risk of ill-treatment if extradited to the U.S.” As if to prove them right, months, if not years, before any trial, Speaker of the House John Boehner called Snowden a “traitor”; Congressman Peter King called him a “defector”; and others were already demanding his execution. If that wasn’t enough, the abuse Bradley Manning suffered had already convinced Snowden that a fair trial and humane treatment were impossible dreams for a whistleblower of his sort. (He specifically cited Manning in his appeal for asylum to Ecuador.)

    So on that flight he knew — as he had long known — that the natural desire to go back to the U.S. and make a stand was beyond foolhardy. Yet the urge to return to the country he loves must have been traveling with him, too. Perhaps on that flight he found himself grimly amused that, after years of running roughshod over international standards — Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites” — the U.S. had the nerve to chide Hong Kong, China, and Russia for not following the rule of law. He certainly knew that his own revelations about massive NSA cyber-spying on Hong Kong and China had deeply embarrassed the Obama administration. It had, after all, been blistering the Chinese for hacking into U.S. military and corporate computers. He himself had ensured that the Chinese wouldn’t turn him over, in the same way that history — decades of U.S. bullying in Latin America — ensured that he had a shot at a future in someplace like in Ecuador.

    If he knew his extradition history, Snowden might also have thought about another time when Washington squirmed as a man it wanted left a friendly country for asylum. In 2004, the U.S. had chess great Bobby Fischer detained in Japan on charges that he had attended a 1992 match in Yugoslavia in violation of a U.S. trade ban. Others suggested that the real reason Washington was after him may have been Fischer’s post 9/11 statement: “It’s time to finish off the U.S. once and for all. This just shows what comes around, goes around.”

    Fischer’s American passport was revoked just like Snowden’s. In the fashion of Hong Kong more recently, the Japanese released Fischer on an immigration technicality, and he flew to Iceland where he was granted citizenship. I was a diplomat in Japan at the time, and had a ringside seat for the negotiations. They must have paralleled what went on in Hong Kong: the appeals to treaty and international law; U.S. diplomats sounding like so many disappointed parents scolding a child; the pale hopes expressed for future good relations; the search for a sympathetic ear among local law enforcement agencies, immigration, and the foreign ministry — anybody, in fact — and finally, the desperate attempt to call in personal favors to buy more time for whatever Plan B might be. As with Snowden, in the end the U.S. stood by helplessly as its prey flew off.

    How Will I Live Now?

    At some point every whistleblower realizes his life will never be the same. For me, that meant losing my job of 24 years at the State Department. For Tom Drake, it meant financial ruin as the government tried to bankrupt him through endless litigation. For CIA agent John Kiriakou, it might have been the moment when, convicted of disclosing classified information to journalists, he said goodbye to his family and walked into Loretto Federal Correctional Institution.

    Snowden could not have avoided anxiety about the future. Wherever he ended up, how would he live? What work would he do? He’s just turned 30 and faces, at best, a lifetime in some foreign country he’s never seen where he might not know the language or much of anything else.

    So fear again, in a slightly different form. It never leaves you, not when you take on the world’s most powerful government. Would he ever see his family and friends again? Would they disown him, fearful of retaliation or affected by the smear campaign against him? Would his parents/best friend/girlfriend come to believe he was a traitor, a defector, a dangerous man? All whistleblowers find their personal relationships strained. Marriages are tested or broken, friends lost, children teased or bullied at school. I know from my own whistleblower’s journey that it’s an ugly penalty — encouraged by a government scorned — for acting on conscience.

    If he had a deeper sense of history, Snowden might have found humor in the way the Obama administration chose to revoke his passport just before he left Hong Kong. After all, in the Cold War years, it was the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union, which was notorious for refusing to grant dissidents passports, while the U.S. regularly waived such requirements when they escaped to the West.

    To deepen the irony of the moment, perhaps he was able to Google up the 2009-2011 figures on U.S. grants of asylum: 1,222 Russians, 9,493 Chinese, and 22 Ecuadorians, not including family members. Maybe he learned that, despite the tantrums U.S. officials threw regarding the international obligation of Russia to extradite him, the U.S. has recently refused Russian requests to extradite two of its citizens.

    Snowden might have mused over then-candidate Obama’s explicit pledge to protect whistleblowers. “Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government,” Obama then said, “is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism… should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration.” It might have been Snowden’s only laugh of the flight.

    I Don’t Hate the U.S., I Love It Deeply, But Believe It Has Strayed

    On that flight, Snowden took his love of America with him. It’s what all of us whistleblowers share: a love of country, if not necessarily its government, its military, or its intelligence services. We care what happens to us the people. That may have been his anchor on his unsettling journey. It would have been mine.

    Remember, if we were working in the government in the first place, like every federal employee, soldier, and many government contractors, we had taken an oath that stated: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” We didn’t pledge fealty to the government or a president or party, only — as the Constitution makes clear — to the ultimate source of legitimacy in our nation, “the people.”

    In an interview, Snowden indicated that he held off on making his disclosures for some time, in hopes that Barack Obama might look into the abyss and decide to become the bravest president in our history by reversing the country’s course. Only when Obama’s courage or intelligence failed was it time to become a whistleblower.

    Some pundits claim that Snowden deserves nothing, because he didn’t go through “proper channels.” They couldn’t be more wrong and Snowden knows it. As with many of us whistleblowers facing a government acting in opposition to the Constitution, Snowden went through the channels that matter most: he used a free press to speak directly to his real boss, the American people.

    In that sense, whatever the fear and anxiety about his life and his future, he must have felt easy with his actions. He had not betrayed his country, he had sought to inform it.

    As with Bradley Manning, Obama administration officials are now claiming that Snowden has blood on his hands. Typically, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed: “People may die as a consequence to what this man did. It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before.” Snowden had heard the same slurs circling around Bradley Manning: that he had put people in danger. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to speak of the war on terror, there is irony too obvious to dwell upon in such charges.

    Flying into the unknown, Snowden had to feel secure in having risked everything to show Americans how their government and the NSA bend or break laws to collect information on us in direct conflict with the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Amnesty International pointed out that blood-on-hands wasn’t at issue. “It appears he is being charged primarily for revealing U.S. and other governments’ unlawful actions that violate human rights.” Those whispers of support are something to take into the dark with you.

    I Believe in Things Bigger Than Myself

    Some of the charges against Snowden would make anyone pause: that, for instance, he did what he did for the thrill of publicity, out of narcissism, or for his own selfish reasons. To any of the members of the post-9/11 club of whistleblowers, the idea that we acted primarily for our own benefit has a theater of the absurd quality to it. Having been there, the negative sentiments expressed do not read or ring true.

    Snowden himself laughed off the notion that he had acted for his own benefit. If he had wanted money, any number of foreign governments would have paid handsomely for the information he handed out to journalists for free and he would never have had to embark on that plane flight from Hong Kong. (No one ever called Aldrich Ames a whistleblower.) If he wanted fame, there were potential book contracts and film deals to be had.

    No, it was conscience. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere along the line Snowden had read the Declaration of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal: “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”

    Edward Snowden undoubtedly took comfort knowing that a growing group of Americans are outraged enough to resist a government turning against its own people. His thoughts were mirrored by Julian Assange, who said, “In the Obama administration’s attempt to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, a young generation of people who find the mass violation of the rights of privacy and open process unacceptable. In taking on the generation, the Obama administration can only lose.” Snowden surely hoped President Obama would ask himself why he has pursued more than double the number of Espionage Act cases of all his presidential predecessors combined, and why almost all of those prosecutions failed.

    On that flight, Edward Snowden must have reflected on what he had lost, including the high salary, the sweet life in Hawaii and Switzerland, the personal relationships, and the excitement of being on the inside, as well as the coolness of knowing tomorrow’s news today.  He has already lost much that matters in an individual life, but not everything that matters. Sometimes — and any whistleblower comes to know this in a deep way — you have to believe that something other, more, deeper, better than yourself matters.  You have to believe that one courageous act of conscience might make a difference in an America gone astray or simply that, matter or not, you did the right thing for your country.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • pitchfork said...


      Excellent PVB. As most people with at least one neuron between their ears, I’ve been thinking about Snowden’s future on a daily basis. You’ve managed to put my thoughts into words that only a whistle blower could think about.
      Like this…
      quote:”… likely via yet another prosecution under the Espionage Act (with the potential for the death penalty)”unquote

      Death penalty notwithstanding, Obama wouldn’t flinch to drone Snowden at the first opportunity if he could while lifting his middle finger to the planet. Especially since Greenwald has let it be known Snowden has a “death switch”. While I couldn’t give a rats ass if he actually used it, I’m having a blast knowing so many heads in WDC are exploding exponentially, notwithstanding providing living proof of Twain’s axiom.

      Here is an plumb bob example…

      quote:””The courts are where these debates belong,” Johnson insisted,
      dismissing Snowden’s approach. “That’s anarchy,” the former Dod lawyer said.”unquote

      Courts. Debate. right.
      Says a dimwit of biblical proportions. The living proof is in the previous paragraph…

      quote”… noting that a series of ACLU lawsuits were DISMISSED for lack of PROOF. Most recently, in February the Supreme Court rejected such a case onstanding grounds after the Justice Department dismissed as speculation
      the idea that the plaintiffs in the case had been surveilled.” unquote
      Fucking priceless
      Rolling on the floor in gut splitting laughter notwithstanding Mr. Halfwit,..the whole point of Snowden’s revelations is…ta da!..wait for it….

      yesireeebob….PROOF. whudda thunk? Of course, these DOD/Congress/NSA schmucks think it’s fun to pretend their skull cavities are filled with grey matter instead of excrement..but sheeezus…suspending reality..INDEFINITELY? That’s quite a trick…even for human beings.

      And btw Congresswoman Harman, before you open that gash in your face again..you might consider one of Mark Twain’s better know axioms…..

      “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”

      Any questions Ms Harman? I didn’t think so.d Now fuck off.

      07/19/13 3:31 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Respectfully, I cannot believe Assange’s prophecy “the Obama administration’s attempt to crush these young whistleblowers with espionage charges, the U.S. government is taking on a generation, a young generation of people who find the mass violation of the rights of privacy and open process unacceptable. In taking on the younger generation, the Obama administration can only lose.”

      The sad fact is the FACEBOOK generation like prior generations has tuned out on issues that they THINK do not impact it directly. For example, while the FB crowd took an interest in abortion issues, it was ignorant and/or disinterested about the dead and dying in the illegal Iraq war, primarily because it did not threaten them with a draft.

      Only when the Great Surveillance State is exposed as a clear and present danger to their future, it will be too late. One does not have to be a prophet to predict the obvious.

      07/19/13 6:09 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Black(listed)like me:

      Obama: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. Trayvon Martin could have been me.”

      Yes, OB, surveillance is a bitch. That could be said by most Muslims in America. And if Obama is deemed a threat by a future Drone Master he could say the same thing about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

      07/19/13 6:29 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Snowden can come back home now. The US is a refuge for international criminals:


      07/19/13 7:52 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “Only when the Great Surveillance State is exposed as a clear and present danger to their future, it will be too late.”

      It is later than you think:


      07/20/13 1:42 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      “You have to believe that one courageous act of conscience might make a difference in an America gone astray or simply that, matter or not, you did the right thing for your country.”

      And then if you want to refer to totally pure standards of conscience, you can omit the final three words, “for your country”, because your country’s welfare (even its proper, lawful and just welfare) is not the final standard of what is right.

      07/20/13 3:27 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      PS, to clarify my above comment: Although doing what is categorically right is ipso facto always in one’s country’s best interest, one’s country’s best interest does not define what is right. Rather, what is right, is what defines your country’s best interest, not the reverse.

      07/20/13 3:31 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      PPS, when I say, “what is right, is what defines your country’s best interest, not the reverse”…

      …I suppose some could call me a “religious lunatic” for saying so, since that’s what the Old Testament Prophets were always ranting about when they kept trying – and failing – to warn Israel that it was setting itself up for catastrophe by confusing its own ambitions with what is “right”…

      …however, the same principle was affirmed by the secular court of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46.

      07/20/13 3:38 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      quote:”…however, the same principle was affirmed by the secular court of the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46.”unquote

      Bravo. Perfect.

      07/20/13 3:44 PM | Comment Link

    • meloveconsullongtime said...


      Pitch, here’s (American) Justice Jackson at Nuremberg:

      “And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law.”


      07/20/13 4:28 PM | Comment Link

    • Kyzl Orda said...


      Dear Peter, thank you. Your commentary is very poignant and says it all

      It will be interesting to see if Russia will indeed be the final destination for Mr Snowden. Iceland should not be written off, after all is said and done

      “Some pundits claim that Snowden deserves nothing, because he didn’t go through “proper channels.” They couldn’t be more wrong and Snowden knows it. As with many of us whistleblowers facing a government acting in opposition to the Constitution”

      The so-called ‘Proper Channels’ are bonk. At State, i remember people advising a sure-fire way to kill your career is to to go to HR and file a so-called complaint. The EEO Court is also broken. There are issues at the Whistleblower office, OSC – remember the scandal with computers being taken out and records going missing? Of course, State’s own OIG has had more than its fair share of problems — to many for one government agency.

      There will be no resolution. Why would it be surprising people opt for going outside the system to address important matters? Or is it expected the rank and file will be ‘encouraged’ to participate in illegal matters — then be thoughtfully scapegoated when a scandal arises and a body needed to be thrown under the bus?

      07/20/13 5:13 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      A prophet and didn’t know it, the US invaded Iraq because it claimed Iraq was a refuge for AQ. Wrong. But that was then, this is now:


      07/21/13 12:52 PM | Comment Link

    • pitchfork said...


      melove wrote..
      quote:”We are able to do away with domestic tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of their own people only when we make all men answerable to the law.”unquote

      Answerable to the law. Indeed. Obama mocks Nuremberg. Time to Impeach this miserable psychopathic murderer…if not imprison him…although, I’d prefer the Nuremberg version of “justice”. After all..he authorized the murder of a 16 yr old American citizen. And it is documented. Funny how the MSM is completely silent about this, the Congress notwithstanding.

      But we all know why.


      I signed today. I hope you will too.

      07/21/13 5:05 PM | Comment Link

    • jhoover said...


      I am not justifying or defending Edward Snowden case I leave his matter to rules and law and what he restrictions according to his contract.

      But I am asking here for those “traitor” encouraged and paid by US & CIA and other agencies from tax payer money to invade Iraq.

      So now you should knew them well who are those traitor, let help you with some names:
      1. Ahmed Abdel Hadi Chalabi, receiving $335,000 monthly allowance.
      2. Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Javari
      3. Nouri Kamil Mohammed Hasan al-Maliki
      4. Kanan Makiya
      5. Jalal Talabani
      6. Salem Chalabi
      7. Ayad Allawi
      8. Khidir Hamza
      I leave the other more to use to fill the list…..

      So if Snowden in eyes of US &CIA and most the American humiliating US and his nation them what about those B* funded by US &CIA to lunch a war that causes more than 180,000 Iraqi dead, 8 million refugees all around the world, 4.700 Americans dead, 35,000 disabled US citizens. And more…

      So it’s very simple question here, do Iraqi have the right to shoot all those traitor in head and finish them for what they done and doing to Iraq and Iraqis?
      Are Iraqis have the right to bring and those traitor to justices just like US asking and calling for Snowden to be surrender to US?

      07/23/13 4:41 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      It’s Black and White: Obama is filling the role of George W as Enemy of State. Nice to know that when it comes to our government fucking with our rights it is really colorblind –

      07/25/13 11:20 AM | Comment Link

    Leave A Comment

    Mail (will not be published) (required)