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The myth of the lone whistleblower

When someone reveals state secrets, their personal motivations come under intense scrutiny. What’s often lost is the political significance of what they disclosed.

Edward Snowden spoke on a video link to a research conference at the MIT Media Lab in 2016.KAYANA SZYMCZAK/NYT

Americans love to debate the psychology of whistleblowers. Whenever a government insider blows the whistle on abuses in the national security state, the nation puts them on the couch. What were their motives? Can their judgment be trusted?

Frequently, the diagnosis is negative. The New York Times suggested that the “troubled” Chelsea Manning released documents to WikiLeaks out of a “desperation for acceptance or delusions of grandeur.” Edward Snowden, concluded Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, revealed National Security Agency surveillance programs because he was a “grandiose narcissist.” Daniel Hale, who leaked information about the drone program, was motivated by “self-aggrandizement.”


Even Daniel Ellsberg, today normally held up as the “right” kind of whistleblower, the noble man of conscience, saw his psychology pilloried when he disclosed the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Commentators called him “unbalanced,” “vain [and] egocentric,” and a “messianic crusader” on an “ego trip.” One conservative columnist went so far as to propose the existence of an “Ellsberg syndrome” — a delusional belief, allegedly common among bureaucrats, in the purity of one’s own judgment.

In response, many have defended these whistleblowers as brave truth-tellers who acted out of a deep sense of duty. Yet whether we praise or criticize, to debate the psychology of the whistleblower is to treat whistleblowing as a completely individual act. In doing so, we miss an important fact: No one makes the decision to blow the whistle entirely on their own. It is always an act made in collaboration with allies, a part of a broader political movement. Understanding these connections allows us to see more clearly the political stakes of these spectacular disclosures — and to more properly judge why whistleblowers act as they do.

From Ellsberg to Snowden and Manning

Take the textbook case of Ellsberg. Before he disclosed state secrets, he had been radicalized by his engagement with the antiwar movement. In April 1968, he had begun talking to a Gandhian pacifist, Janaki Natarajan, at a conference in Princeton. Intrigued by her politics, he began reading more radical work she suggested to him: Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Henry David Thoreau. On Natarajan’s invitation, he then attended a conference of War Resisters International at Haverford College, where he was deeply moved by the example of draft resisters and participated in their protests — a radicalizing experience. He decided to commit his own act of civil disobedience — leaking state secrets — but only after talking it through with Tony Russo, another former employee of the RAND Corporation who had become a critic of the war. The frequently forgotten Russo helped make copies of the Pentagon Papers and was later prosecuted for the leak alongside Ellsberg. Ellsberg’s crisis of conscience didn’t just happen; it emerged in dialogue with the broader mobilization of the antiwar movement.


Military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, surrendered to authorities at the federal courthouse in Boston on June 28, 1971.DONALD F. HOLWAY/NYT

One can tell a similar story about the whistleblowers in the War on Terror. Before Daniel Hale gave secret information about the drone program to a journalist, he had participated in an antiwar conference organized by Code Pink, become friendly with antiwar activists, and regularly spoken out against the war. Chelsea Manning’s opposition to secrecy was formed in dialogue with free-software and transparency activists — whom she knew both through online chat groups and through personal connections made via a boyfriend in the tech scene in Boston. (When she was deployed by the Army, one of them sent her a copy of Richard Stallman’s “Free Software, Free Society” with the inscription “fight for freedom.”) She too was radicalized by participating in a protest — for queer rights — after which she too began reading more broadly in leftist literature, including, like Ellsberg, Howard Zinn. And her decision to leak documents to WikiLeaks was inspired by discussions of transparency and secrecy in chat rooms that, she later said, “felt like a true collective at that time.” Snowden’s opposition to secrecy and surveillance was also forged in online chat rooms — frequently of a libertarian bent (he was a Ron Paul political donor) — as well as by his involvement in the volunteer network that ran Tor, open-source software that allowed for anonymous web browsing. In the months before he released information about the NSA, at a time when he was seen wearing a hoodie sold by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Snowden hosted a gathering for a Tor developer in Hawaii.


To publicize a leak also requires a sympathetic support network. After Ellsberg gave the Pentagon Papers to Neal Sheehan — a New York Times journalist whom Ellsberg believed to be ideologically simpatico — he went underground. He was sheltered by a network of antiwar activists, who also helped distribute additional copies of the papers to other newspapers when the Nixon administration tried to censor the Times. The identities of these activists are still largely unknown — Ellsberg always referred to them as the Lavender Hill mob, after a 1951 heist flick. But Natarajan was one of them, and radical historian Gar Alperovitz was another.


Daniel Hale was charged in 2019 with leaking classified information on drone warfare to a reporter.Jesselyn Radack

More recent whistleblowers also took their leaks to allies in the media. Manning took her information to WikiLeaks; Hale to Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept. Snowden, tellingly, reached out to two journalists known for their civil liberties activism and their opposition to state surveillance — Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. Snowden was quite consciously seeking partners, people who shared his political views and with whom he could collectively make the decision about what should be published. “I never thought that I alone should be able to choose which of my country’s secrets should be made known to the public and which should not,” he later explained. Snowden, too, soon went underground in Hong Kong safe houses before making a failed effort to seek asylum in Ecuador — moves all facilitated by allies.

To emphasize these connections is not to deny that the decision to blow the whistle is a profoundly personal one, or that these are moments, very rare in contemporary politics, when an individual decision to act has profound social consequences. But it is to point out that whistleblowers are not isolated individuals acting out of idiosyncratic ideas about what is right and wrong in government policy. They have good reason, learned in dialogue with political movements, to think that what they want to disclose will be of interest to the public.

There is much in our political culture that encourages us to ignore these dynamics. The law that criminalizes revealing state secrets — the Espionage Act — does not allow for any defense, so leakers have no opportunity to explain why the public’s right to know may justify their actions. These strict laws in turn mean that very few people make the radical decision to blow the whistle. And because whistleblowing is such an exceptional act, it is no surprise that media coverage tends to focus on the psychology of the people who do it. In any case, it is easier — particularly in the first rush of commentary after a spectacular leak — to debate the character of the leaker than to try to make sense of the substantive political issues they reveal, which are by definition complex and controversial.


But when the inevitable next leaker comes along, we should not take this easy road. We should not perpetuate the myth of the lone whistleblower. Rather than debating the personality of the discloser, we should debate the political significance of what was disclosed.

Sam Lebovic is a professor of history at George Mason University. His new book is “State of Silence: The Espionage Act and the Rise of America’s Secrecy Regime,” being published Tuesday.