Edward Snowden and whistleblowers: ‘The truth sets you free’
Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s electronic surveillance make him one of the most damaging whistleblowers in history. But what drives loyal employees to reveal the truth? And how do they live with the backlash?
A former MI5 officer, Machon resigned from the security service, along with her then partner David Shayler, in 1996, and blew the whistle on alleged failures and crimes, including illegal MI5 phone taps.
I think Edward Snowden is in for a rough ride. But the way he has run the whole exposure and disclosure of the crimes of the NSA and what they are doing against the American people and people around the world has been very sophisticated. Obviously, he will have taken on board the sort of security and extradition issues that he needs to think about. From what I can see, he has taken very careful steps to protect those closest to him. The message he is putting out now is why he is doing it, why it is important, why people need to listen to what he is saying. I think it has been very, very well done.
What the NSA is doing is turning the US – and, by extension, the rest of the world – into a Big Brother surveillance state. As soon as you get into this situation where the nuts and bolts of the internet – Google, Facebook, a system we all use – can be used to spy on us, whether those companies know it or not, we have no privacy whatsoever. And once we have no privacy on the internet, we lose any sense of freedom to express ourselves openly. We lose our freedom to download information and ingest information openly. So we lose free society. Free thought requires free media.
Annie Machon: ‘They tell you to shut up, not rock the boat and follow orders.’ Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
I hope the Obama administration has learned from prosecuting and persecuting multiple whistleblowers, Bradley Manning being just one of them. They are not winning the war of the desire for information to be free, the desire for people to be informed. I think normal young people within the intelligence agencies are going to think: Well, actually, we are doing this for good reasons not bad reasons. And they will speak out.
Often people who blow the whistle try to deal with the issue in-house. We certainly did. You go to your boss and say: “This is wrong.” You say: “We should learn from mistakes made.” And they tell you just to shut up, not rock the boat and follow orders.
What does it take to be a whistleblower? Often the very trait that attracts you to intelligence work – that is, to make a real difference, protect your country’s way of life and potentially save lives. To stand up against organisational groupthink and say: “This is wrong”, knowing you face not just loss of career but also loss of liberty, takes courage – and Snowden has that in spades.