The word "whistle-blower" conjures up a certain kind of individual and circumstance. One imagines a workaday, dedicated employee who comes to realize that there is corruption or grave misconduct, dangerous to the public good, happening at his or her workplace. The employee may or may not go to superiors at the company or agency (depending on fears of losing one's job). If that is not an option, the next move is a prosecutor (in case of illegal activity), oversight agencies and sympathetic members of Congress. If none of that works – and it's nearly unfathomable that no one at any of those institutions would take an interest – the whistle-blower can go to the press.
This is not what happened with Edward Snowden. Snowden took an oath, when he joined the national security community, to keep national secrets secret. There is a legitimate argument to be had over whether too much is classified. But that is an argument someone with national security clearance can have internally. If you take the pledge, you take the pledge. Snowden broke it when he collected massive amounts of classified information and released it to the media.
Breaking the law would be more forgivable if it was both targeted and a last resort. Neither of those things is true in Snowden's case. He told the South China Morning Postthat he got a job with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton for the purpose of collecting information on federal surveillance. This is like saying you took a job as a construction contractor so you could rob people's homes.
Nor did Snowden make an effort to go to Congress with his concerns – an outlet where there are certainly members who would bring Snowden's concerns to light in a responsible way. But that avenue would have made the issue about, well, the issue, and not about Snowden – which seems to be Snowden's main concern.
Had Snowden gone into the national security business, become alarmed and disillusioned at what he saw as unwarranted invasion of Americans' privacy, and then made efforts to expose that troubling practice in a targeted and responsible way, he would be a more sympathetic character. But what Snowden did – amass huge amounts of information, then leave the country as he watched U.S. officials squirm over how much Snowden knew and what he would tell – is proof that his behavior was more about promoting himself than promoting privacy. And piously warning New Year's babies about the loss of privacy is pretty rich, considering that Snowden made his name by stealing secrets and making them public.
Blowing town doesn't add to Snowden's credibility. A real whistle-blower or practitioner of civil disobedience waits around and takes the fallout. They don't hightail it out of the country and shop around for exile – most laughably, in places where civil liberties are not respected.
The New York Times editorial board has called on President Obama to engage in clemency talks with Snowden. That would be a reasonable suggestion if Snowden had made a very targeted release of information after first trying other avenues. It would be reasonable if Snowden had had the courage to stay in the country he purports to be protecting from tyranny and take the heat from his illegal behavior. But he didn't. Clemency would just make national security oaths and laws a joke.
It's a good thing that Americans know about the vast information-collecting the U.S. government has been doing on its own citizens (though there's been something of an over-reaction by people who think the government is reading through everyone's emails and listening to everyone's calls). Congress – which, notably, gave intelligence-gathering authorities the right to do such data-mining in the hysteria after 9/11 – ought to re-examine what we allow our own government to do in the name of public security. But that's not what Snowden's behavior was about. It was all about Edward Snowden.