So You Want to Be a Whistle-Blower ...

Photograph by Richard Drury/Getty Images

Revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden, the former CIA technical assistant and just-fired Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) employee, have made him the whistle-blower du jour, and for some even a hero. But while some whistle-blowers enjoy legal protections for their actions, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly is preparing to file criminal charges against Snowden. Here are some basics about whistle-blowing.

What is a whistle-blower, and are we sure Snowden counts as one?

A whistle-blower informs the public or authorities of wrongdoing, typically in government or business. While the media has widely referred to Snowden as a whistle-blower, Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent sent out a memo on Monday instructing reporters to call Snowden a “leaker” instead—since a whistle-blower is defined by the exposure of wrongdoing, and it’s not yet clear whether the NSA’s actions were illegal in any way. Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker went even further, calling Snowden “a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.” Still, David Colapinto, legal director at the National Whistleblowers Center, argues that Snowden’s allegations that NSA officials routinely lied to Congress is more than a policy dispute and would constitute “classic whistle-blowing.”

Is this kind of behavior encouraged?

Certain state and federal government agencies have websites dedicated to whistle-blowing, offering instruction on how to do it, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Securities and Exchange Commission, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission. For intelligence workers, on the other hand, whistle-blowing is not encouraged, Colapinto says, and there are few protections for people who disclose wrongdoing in this community. While President Obama issued an executive order last year protecting national security and intelligence employees, it is not an enforceable law.

When do federal or state laws protect whistle-blowers?

There are laws protecting whistle-blowers, but “some states have very narrow definitions [of protected whistle-blower activity], while others have definitions that are very broad,” the NWC explains. “An employee or his or her attorney should thoroughly research the state law regarding the definition for his or her state.” National security workers like Snowden would most likely be covered under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act, which provides for disclosure of wrongdoing to the inspector general or certain committees of Congress. Snowden, however, reported his allegations to the media rather than the authorities.

What’s in it for the whistle-blower?

The IRS, SEC, and CFTC offer monetary awards for whistle-blowing that helps the government recover damages for fraud. Some whistle-blowers have been given more than $100 million for their disclosures. There are no monetary awards available for intelligence community whistle-blowers, says Colapinto.

Are there lawyers who specialize in whistle-blower cases?

The National Whistleblower Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit organization, runs an attorney referral service to match whistle-blowers with qualified counsel. Currently, 170 attorneys in 40 states participate in the service.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.