More than six years before the whistleblower complaint that instigated a House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, a different insider — former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — shook Washington to its core by releasing thousands of classified documents to the media. Both individuals made headlines and have come under attack, but only Snowden has had to flee the country to avoid prosecution.
An attorney for the Trump whistleblower explained the difference.
“There is nothing similar between Ed Snowden and this whistleblower,” Mark Zaid, an attorney for the Trump whistleblower, told the Washington Examiner. “In order to be a protected whistleblower under law, you need to follow the lawful procedures.”
So, what’s the difference between the Trump whistleblower and Edward Snowden?
The “lawful procedures” involve going through prescribed internal channels rather than giving information directly to the press. The Trump whistleblower followed protocol by filing a nine-page complaint with intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson, which was then forwarded to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. The complaint — raising concerns about potential abuse of power by President Trump and his aides — became public only when the head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., revealed that Maguire had refused to send the complaint to Congress.
Snowden, however, leaked secret NSA documents to journalists at the Guardian and the Washington Post after claiming in his testimony to the European Parliament that he went to “more than 10 distinct officials” internally, “none of whom took any action.” The NSA has disputed Snowden’s account. Snowden is believed to have stolen over a million classified documents, exposing the NSA’s mass data collection of U.S. citizens’ phone calls and internet data.
The Trump whistleblower’s attorney says if Snowden had reported his concerns about NSA practices internally instead of through the media, things may have turned out differently.
“If he had gone to an experienced attorney who could have guided him through the path the way this whistleblower did, the entire outcome might have ended differently, and Snowden might be living in suburban Maryland at this moment,” Zaid told the Washington Examiner.
Reaction against Snowden was swift. Days after the Guardian began publishing information from the trove of stolen documents, Snowden was charged with espionage and theft of government property on June 14, 2013. Snowden has evaded capture by seeking asylum in Russia, which is due to expire in 2020.
The Trump whistleblower has also encountered backlash. President Trump has repeatedly called for the whistleblower’s identity to be revealed, tweeting that the whistleblower “must be brought forward to testify.” The whistleblower’s lead attorney has raised concerns for his client’s safety as a result of the president’s comments.
Now, Snowden is drawing parallels between his own treatment and that of the Trump whistleblower.
“The most alarming part of what we see in the treatment of this person today by the White House is what every White House does,” Snowden told Democracy Now! in September, shortly after the Trump whistleblower’s complaint was made public. “They try to make the conversation not about the allegations; they try to make the conversation about the source of the allegations.”
While the Trump whistleblower’s identity remains a mystery, certain details about their background have been made public. Believed to be a CIA agent once stationed at the White House, the whistleblower was also likely an analyst with a deep understanding of Ukrainian politics, according to The New York Times.
Snowden was also employed by the CIA (as a computer systems administrator) before eventually going on to work for private intelligence contractors hired by the NSA, including Dell and Booz Allen Hamilton. Sometime during his employment with these contractors, Snowden began hoarding documents on NSA surveillance.
The debate over how the U.S. responds to whistleblowers is now part of the 2020 election dialogue as well, with Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pledging in a recent interview with The Intercept not to use the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers if he is elected president.
“Whistleblowers have a very important role to play in the political process,” Sanders said.
Snowden tweeted a monosyllabic response to Sanders’: “Whoa.”