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The news that America’s National Security Agency was routinely collecting the date and time of almost every phone call made in the US, and almost all web communications that flow through American companies, appears to be taking some time for the public to digest. The multi-faceted fallout from the actions of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor at the centre of the scandal who’s currently holed up in a Hong Kong hotel, is only just beginning.  

In his interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, a measured and articulate Snowden claimed that “sitting at my desk I certainly had the authority to wiretap anyone, from you, your accountant, to a federal judge to the president”.

The reaction to the scandal has been mixed. Fox News pundit Ralph Peters called for the death penalty, while Time magazine columnist Joe Klein called it a “nonscandal”. Meanwhile, Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower at the centre of the Vietnam War Pentagon Papers furore, wrote in The Guardian (in a piece entitled Saving Us From The United Stasi Of America): “There has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.”

Snowden himself claims the reason behind the leak is that he believes it should be up to the public to decide whether these enormous surveillance techniques are right or wrong. But he is under no illusions about his own future. Asked if he feared prison, he said: “I could not do this without fear of prison. If they want to get you, over time they will.”

Snowden is the second high-profile US whistleblower in recent years (after Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame), but he is the first to target the proliferation in intelligence gathering infrastructure in the US post 9/11. Speaking about why he’d come out as the man behind the leak, Snowden said: “I think the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures, that are outside the democratic model.”

But are whistleblowers simply brave individuals sacrificing their future for the broader good or, as some commentators this week have suggested, are they self-serving narcissists, making decisions with ramifications for millions of people that no one has empowered them to make?

TNT spoke to psychologist Roxana Rudzik-Shaw of RRS Counselling about what goes through the mind of those who become whistleblowers. 

“Decision-making regarding formal organisational disclosure is often a very complex process, not least for the fact that whistleblowing is perceived as a form of civil disobedience, ethical resistance or principled organisational dissent,” Rudzik-Shaw said. “Individuals who disclose illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices within an organisation are typically motivated by their personal as well as professional, moral and ethical principles.”

She added: “Common traits of whistleblowers include, but are not limited to, selflessness, being driven by altruistic motives and pro-social behaviour for the greater good, often following a cost-benefit analysis prior to the act of disclosure. 

“The potential consequences of whistleblowing may be short- or long-term. Furthermore, should the suspected or alleged wrong-doing become public interest, the implications may be more so controversial, damaging and long-lasting.”With that in mind, we take a look at what might have driven history’s most famous whistleblowers.


What motivates whistleblowers? Edward Snowden caused the biggest upset to the US government since WikiLeaks, we find out why
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