There was a time when I was a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. He's an astoundingly good story teller, and a great writer. But he's also got a pretty long history of... just being wrong. Over the years, Gladwell's willingness to go for the good story over the facts has become increasingly clear. Famously, Steven Pinker ripped Gladwell's serial problems
many years ago, but it hasn't really stopped Gladwell since then. If you've ever quoted "the 10,000 hour rule" or suggested that someone can become an expert in something if they just spend 10,000 hours doing it, you've been fooled by Gladwell. Even the guy whose one study
Gladwell based the idea on loudly debunked the claim
, and just this past year put out his own book that is basically trying to rectify the false beliefs
that have spread around the globe from people believing Gladwell's incorrect spin.
So, suffice it to say I was already skeptical of Gladwell's recent piece attacking Ed Snowden as not being a "real" whistleblower
. But the piece is much, much worse than even I expected. The short, Gladwellian-style summary of it might be: real whistleblowers
have to look the part, and they need to be part of an Ivy League elite, with clear, noble reasons behind what they did. Here's how Gladwell describes Daniel Ellsberg, the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and to whom Gladwell has given his stamp of approval as a "Real Whistleblower™"
Ellsberg was handsome and charismatic. He had served in the Marine Corps as a company commander in Korea. He did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, where he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on game theory and collaborated with Thomas Schelling, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. He took a senior post in McNamara’s Defense Department, represented the State Department in Vietnam, and had two stints as a senior intelligence analyst at the rand Corporation. Ellsberg knew about the Pentagon Papers because he was a member of the select team that wrote them, working on the section dealing with the very early nineteen-sixties. Before he approached the Times, he went to the Senate, where he tried to get someone to release the documents formally and hold public hearings. He walked the halls and dropped in on people he knew. “I had Senator Mathias in mind, and Senator Mike Gravel,” who, he notes, had “written me a letter congratulating me on my New York Review of Books article,” about the bombings in Laos. (It seems safe to say that the subject, verb, and object here—“Senator,” “written,” “New York Review of Books article”—may never again appear together in a sentence.)
See? To Gladwell, Ellsberg "fits the part." But that's not how whistleblowing often works. And here's how Gladwell describes Snowden, who apparently doesn't look the part:
But Snowden did not study under a Nobel Prize winner, or give career advice to the likes of Henry Kissinger. He was a community-college dropout, a member of the murky hacking counterculture. He enlisted in the Army Reserves, and washed out after twenty weeks. He worked at the C.I.A. for a few years and left under a cloud. He learned about the innermost secrets of American intelligence-gathering and policy not because he was personally involved with that intelligence-gathering or policymaking but because he was a technician who helped service the computer systems that managed these things. The élites, Snowden once said, “know everything about us and we know nothing about them—because they are secret, they are privileged, and they are a separate class.” Had Snowden been a whistle-blower in 1967, at the launch of the Pentagon Papers, he would have blown the whistle on Daniel Ellsberg. The whistle-blower as insider has become the whistle-blower as outsider. That is a curious fact, and, as we come to terms with the consequences of Snowden’s actions, it may be an underappreciated one.
Gladwell's gentlemanly view of whistleblowing as an elite pasttime is historical fiction. It's not how whistleblowing usually works, and completely ignores how the government has regularly gone after and punished whistleblowers time after time. Gladwell, somewhat ridiculously, creates a fictional composite he calls "Daniel Snowberg" and suggests if the following had happened, that would have made Snowden an acceptible whistleblower:
Imagine a young man called Daniel Snowberg. He has a doctorate in international relations, and once spent a summer interning at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the think tank specializing in digital freedom. He gets a job as an analyst at the National Security Agency, and while there he runs across a copy of the infamous Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (fisc) authorization, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This is the order that led Verizon to hand over its telephone records to the N.S.A.
The order troubles him. The Patriot Act allows the N.S.A. to obtain phone records and the like if it provides “a statement of facts showing that . . . the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation.” But this isn’t a search specific to an investigation. It appears to be a fishing expedition. He surreptitiously copies the authorization: it’s not that long. He sends it to his old colleagues at the Frontier Foundation. They share his alarm: the legal opinion in the fisc order looks unconstitutional to them. They set up a meeting with Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wyden, too, is troubled. He encourages them to leak it to the Washington Post. And they do. That is the leaker as insider.
Edward Snowden took a different path. He used a Web crawler (a search engine preprogrammed with key words) to roam through the N.S.A. files, “touching” as many as 1.7 million of them. Among those files was the fisc order. But Snowden also accessed, and ultimately passed on to journalists, thousands of files concerning activities that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance.
But that final paragraph also bullshit and a misleading myth pushed by the intelligence community, and has since been debunked. Even James Clapper admitted two and a half years ago that Snowden didn't take 1.7 million documents
, and that it was a much more curated list of files that he felt actually showed serious problems. And, while Gladwell keeps trying to suggest that Snowden "flooded" documents, rather than "leaking" them. That's ridiculous.
As the EFF has written in response to Gladwell's piece
, Gladwell seems to be troubling rewriting history to suit his narrative, rather than actually stating facts, noting that contrary to Gladwell's claim, both Ellsberg and Snowden did essentially the same thing -- taking a large number of documents but not all that they had access to
-- to the press, and allowing them to sort through what was newsworthy.
Also, the EFF notes that the "Daniel Snowberg" hypothetical is ridiculous, because that description matches exactly what happened with Mark Klein, the former AT&T tech who blew the whistle on the NSA's upstream tapping of AT&T backbone cables. And it didn't work the way Gladwell thinks it would work:
Mr. Klein was in tech support at AT&T. Like Snowden, he didn’t go to Harvard, pal around with Kissinger, or serve in the intelligence services. But he had real documents and direct testimony demonstrating that, at the behest of the NSA, AT&T was (and still is) making illegal copies of Internet traffic through key network junctures. This includes the juncture in a building on Folsom Street in San Francisco. After copying, searching is conducted through the full content of much of that information, especially messages going to and from abroad but including millions of Americans' communications. We now know that the government calls this program “UPSTREAM,” and calls its searching through the actual content of messages “about” searching, but we didn’t know these names in 2006. This was a big, new program with profound legal and constitutional implications. It deserved (and still deserves) serious public and judicial consideration.
So what happened? Mr. Klein went to the press before coming to EFF, but a Los Angeles Times story about his discoveries was famously spiked by Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte who intimidated now New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet out of running it. Finally, the New York Times did publish a story but the government just kept issuing carefully worded denials.
During this time Mr. Klein also came to EFF and we tried to do what Ellsberg did. We approached several U.S. senators about the information, including Mr. Klein’s own Senator Dianne Feinstein. We were, to put it kindly, strung along. We never even got a meeting with a senator. EFF also filed a lawsuit against AT&T based on Mr. Klein’s information, but we had to keep the actual evidence under seal for a long time, making it easy for the government to largely ignore us and, when pushed, dismiss Mark’s claims as unfounded since he was just a lowly technician.
We tried another part of the “Ellsberg” strategy. We took Mark to Washington to try to increase the chance of Congressional assistance as well as to try to bring more public attention to what his evidence revealed. We even managed to have a press briefing on Capitol Hill and a few meetings with staffers.
But we couldn’t get a hearing on Mark’s whistleblower information, couldn’t keep the press on it, and couldn’t penetrate the assumptions and elitist narrative about whistleblowers.
But, honestly, beyond the ridiculous hypothetical, the pure insanity of claiming that Snowden can't be a whistleblower because he isn't elite enough, and the factually incorrect statements (which were shown to be factually incorrect years ago), the best evidence that Malcolm Gladwell is (once again) full of shit comes from none other than Daniel Ellsberg himself who explained how Snowden made the right call
in doing what he did, and happily comparing Snowden to himself:
Yet when I surrendered to arrest in Boston, having given out my last copies of the papers the night before, I was released on personal recognizance bond the same day. Later, when my charges were increased from the original three counts to 12, carrying a possible 115-year sentence, my bond was increased to $50,000. But for the whole two years I was under indictment, I was free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures. I was, after all, part of a movement against an ongoing war. Helping to end that war was my preeminent concern. I couldn’t have done that abroad, and leaving the country never entered my mind.
There is no chance that experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal in Richard Nixon’s era — and figured in his resignation in the face of impeachment — but are today all regarded as legal (including an attempt to “incapacitate me totally”).
I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.
He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture described Manning’s conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” (That realistic prospect, by itself, is grounds for most countries granting Snowden asylum, if they could withstand bullying and bribery from the United States.)
Snowden is every bit the "whistleblower" that Ellsberg was -- and perhaps moreso, seeing as he did what he did knowing
(unlike Ellsberg) that he needed to leave his home country to do so, and that he might never return. Gladwell tells a good story, but it should be left on the fiction pages.