The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


August 25, 2013

Walking on eggshells | Are whistle-blowers heroes or heels?

JOHNSTOWN — Patriot or traitor?

The distinction between the two seems quite obvious, but in 2013 America, it is entirely possibly to be both – at least in the minds of other Americans.

Which is Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who publicly revealed the massive scope of the agency’s PRISM surveillance program, which has been collecting large amounts of data on American citizens for years?

We asked that very question on our website a few weeks ago. The results of the highly unscientific poll showed 817 votes saying that Snowden should be “charged by the Justice Department for leaking classified information,” while 728 votes said he “is a hero because he brought to light questionable government tactics.”

The “I’m not sure” option in that poll got 175 clicks.

Frankly, we’re a little surprised that option didn’t get a few more.

The line that whistleblowers walk is a very blurry one. We’re always told to stand up for what is right, even if it’s not the popular option. But what if that requires standing up to the federal government, which can lead to criminal proceedings?

That’s the situation that former CIA operative John Kiriakou says he faced in 2007. Kiriakou told our Justin Dennis his story in the Aug. 17 editions of The Tribune-Democrat.

Kiriakou said that he went on television to defend himself against accusations that he had waterboarded an al-Qaida operative. And in order to do that, Kiriakou said, he had to reveal the truth.

 “And the truth was not only were we torturing people, but it was an official U.S. policy,” he told Dennis. “It was signed off on by the president.”

Kiriakou, who is serving a 30-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto for passing classified information to the media, has become an outspoken critic of government policies. It’s not a role he ever expected to fill.

“I’ve learned since this whole thing started that no one intends to be a whistle-blower,” Kiriakou said.

He’s offered advice to Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor, who fled the country in order to avoid prosecution. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum by Russia and continues to speak out about National Security Agency efforts.

Like Kiriakou, he exposed the government practices that many Americans disagree with and may be unconstitutional. It’s important that we know what our government is doing – especially when it comes to secret monitoring of our lives. That makes him an American hero to some.

But in his efforts to avoid prosecution, Snowden has affiliated himself with some countries that are, to say the least, antagonistic toward America. That makes him a traitor in the eyes of many.

Even now, when he appears to be safe for the time being in Russia, Snowden continues to make headlines as he reveals more and more information that damages the reputation of our nation and our allies.

It’s a slippery slope that Snowden and other whistleblowers attempt to navigate.

Patriot or traitor? It’s in the eyes of the beholder.

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