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The Challenges of Dissent: A Dissenter’s View

June 13, 2013

The commentary on Edward Snowden over the past several days and the various discussions on dissent, resignations, and whistleblowing have given me a lot to think about.  I’ll leave discussion of the merits of Snowden’s actions to Dan’s thread below.  Here I want to think about the process and pitfalls of whistleblowing and dissent.  Twenty years ago this summer I had my own moment in the spotlight for resigning from my position at the State Department in protest over American policy in Bosnia. My situation and experiences were quite different — I was a policy dissenter not really a whistleblower. My resignation — along with those of a few colleagues — generated widespread attention, but none of us disclosed government crimes per se and I was never under threat of legal action. Nonetheless, there are a few general observations on dissent and whistleblowing that may be worth some discussion:   dissent and whistleblowing are inevitable, they are unpredictable, and they are also relatively rare (for a much wider range of reasons than some have suggested).  I also am very uncomfortable labeling dissenters or whistleblowers as heroes, but, for reasons that are different from some of the other commentary out there.

First, dissent, resignations, and whistleblowing are inevitable. Dissent has a long and rich tradition in American political institutional development and it won’t be going away anytime soon. The U.S. national security apparatus (more than 3 or 4 million people when all told in the military, the intelligence community, the diplomatic corps, etc..) is a microcosm of American society.  There are as many moral, ethical, religious, political, social, and economic beliefs systems among those working on the inside as there are in society. It is simply inevitable that there will be some/many  who become frustrated with events, with public deception by senior officials, with bureaucratic inertia and inefficiencies.  This, coupled with the expansiveness of American national security conduct — drones, spies, surveillance, military operations, diplomatic deception — that will all cross moral and ethical lines at some point, will inevitably produce more dissent in the future.  A few examples here, here, and here.

Second, dissent, resignations, and whistleblowing are unpredictable. There is no real profile to those who resign or become whistleblowers. Many seem to be young or mid-career — perhaps because they have less to give up. But this isn’t always the case (see the classic study from Weisband and Franck, 1975) as many are also senior — for example Cyrus Vance in 1980 or Warren Zimmerman. The motives and situations are really too complex and in many cases evolve from dynamic events.   It is impossible for security agencies to develop any kind of real screen identifying someone with a higher propensity to resign. In addition, relative to the size of the national security apparatus, the cases are also too few to draw any real patterns.  This probably means that the USG should try to avoid developing programs that it wouldn’t want to see exposed on the front page of the NYTimes — though I don’t really think that will happen.

Third, dissent is common, but resignations and whistleblowing are rare.  And, this all gets me to my bigger point in response to Steve Walt’s warnings that the danger to democracy comes when we all turn to sheep — when we refrain from standing up and challenging illegal, immoral, or unethical government conduct.  Walt sees this problem coming from the fact that government officials often seek retribution against dissenters and whistleblowers:

…once someone raises their head above the parapet and calls attention to themselves by challenging government policy, they can’t be sure that someone inside the government won’t take umbrage and try to see what sort of dirt they can find. Hoover did it, Nixon did it, and so did plenty of other political leaders. And that means that anyone who wants to challenge government policy has to worry that their private conduct — even if it has nothing to do with the issues at hand — might be fair game for their opponents. And the deck here is stacked in favor of the government, which has billions of dollars to spend collecting this information…

…if these independent voices are becoming more vulnerable to retribution than ever before — and via completely legal means — then more and more of those voices will be cowed into silence. And the inevitable result will be greater latitude for government officials, greater corruption, and a diminished capacity to identify and correct errors.

I agree there is a danger in becoming a society of sheep.  But attacks and criticism from government are only part of the story.  There is as much danger that comes from those sympathizers who put dissenters and whistleblowers on the “hero pedestal.” Most people who leave government service do so for a mixture of motives and with a mixture of emotions. Principled beliefs are no doubt the largest part of their motivation — but the hero pedestal reduces a complex decision into a set of simple talking points.  It also instantly creates a new persona for someone who probably has a pretty long track record of being relatively ordinary — which also probably means the person was also relatively complex.  (Edward Snowden made a point of stating that he was just a regular, patriotic citizen).  The problem that Walt misses and that often gets ignored in these conversations is that a big part of the problem comes from sympathetic advocates — playing their own agenda — who quickly interpet and appropriate words, meanings, and intent in ways that can simply overwhelm.  The whistleblower is not just in the spotlight, but in the spotlight with a whole new identity and set of expectations assigned to her/him by others.  Under these conditions, the whistleblower not only loses privacy, but also autonomy.  And, it all happens incredibly fast.  

Based on my own experiences and having come to know many dissenters and whistleblowers over the past twenty years, this hero pedestal has three associated traps that can create real challenges:

1.  The “media seduction” trap.  As Joe Biden frequently reminds us, the national and international spotlight is very difficult to handle even for those who have spent most of their adult life in it.  It is enormously difficult for those who have little or no experience.

It is really easy to get seduced by the attention, by the celebrity journalists, by the wining and dining.  And, it is easy under the pressure to say something that is exaggerated, stupid, or just not true.  Some journalists and advocates aggressively push whistleblowers so say something stronger (exaggerate) in order to get a stronger scoop on wrongdoing.  Some journalists are just following their own beliefs or predispositions about the exposed misconduct and simply pose questions in a subtle, but leading way:  “well, if you knew XYZ was happening, certainly you MUST have known that ABC was also happening…”  When this is put to you by a celebrity journalist on camera, too often the instinctive answer goes something like this:  “Er, well, yeah, of course I knew THAT….who wouldn’t know that…”  And, once that happens, its almost as if a floodgate of exaggerations is opened.   And, life has just become exponentially more stressful.  My hunch is that Snowden’s comments on being able to tap the President’s phone and his apparent intimate knowledge of all CIA missions and operatives may have been generated by one of these types of questions/exchanges.  The video cuts and pastes portions of the interview so we don’t have a real good sense of the questions Greenwald put to him — but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Not wanting to sound dumb or say stupid things on national television is probably one of the biggest reasons why people sound dumb and say stupid things on national television.  (This is why I have a lot of sympathy for many of the young professional athletes who struggle and screw up under all of the pressure.)  Even when made under the seduction of sympathetic journalists or advocates, ultimately, these mistakes expose dissenters (and their cause) to much more extensive criticism and scrutiny and makes it easier for government officials to deflect and dismiss the criticism.

2.  The “your human interest story is really important” trap.  It is inevitable that the story quickly shifts from the exposed unethical conduct or wrong doing to the personal profile of the whistleblower, her/his family, and the “human interest” story.  This doesn’t really come from the Nixons or Cheneys out there and other sinister government officials, it comes from journalists, it comes from “supporters” and sympathetic advocates, it comes from everywhere.  I was able to avoid the most of the traps listed here, but the one that caught me was my decision to grant an interview with the Washington Post Style section for a feature story that profiled those of us from the State Department who resigned in 1993.  I wanted the press to cover the story of people dying each day in Bosnia.  Yet, at some point and for reasons I still don’t really understand, I allowed a Style reporter into my home.  Very dumb.  Again, as with the seduction trap, once the redirection of the story happens, the real story of misconduct often gets diffused.

3.  The “you are a hero:  you are more important/ethical/noble than others” trap.  Most of the dissenters and whistleblowers that I’ve come to know over the years are often uncomfortable with being labeled as some kind of moral or ethical hero.  We all know our own failings and fallibilities — and hero labels don’t always fit so well with those failings.  And, as mentioned above, there is far more internal dissent than public resignations and whistleblowers.  Most dissenters and whistleblowers leave behind committed and dedicated colleagues who taught, influenced, and mentored their professional and ethical development.  Many of them are as committed to the issue as those who become public.  Their continued dissent working behind the scenes — whether through formal channels or just day-to-day bureaucratic battling — is equally vital for democratic accountability, for policy constraint, reform, and ultimately, change.

Falling into this trap creates a lot of potential problems.  On a personal level it can lead to alienating sympathetic former colleagues, disrupting friendships and other personal relationships.  With respect to the cause, it can add additional pressure to exaggerate the claims in order to sustain the image.

These are just a few of the major challenges.  Not all whistleblowers or dissenter experience them similarly or fall prey to them — and there are plenty of ways to avoid them.  But, they really do exist and they are pretty powerful.

In the end, democratic accountability requires strong institutions and norms.  We know, however, that these institutions do not always work so well.  As a result, we will see more dissent and whistleblowing.  I have great admiration for those with the courage to challenge unethical and illegal conduct.  But, I also recognize that most personal decisions are incredibly complex.  I am also sensitive to the enormous challenges and pitfalls along the way that may take these individuals into directions they neither anticipated nor desired.  And, ultimately, it is not just ugly government hacks that will seek to expose the personal, trivial, and private affairs of the messenger, the media and advocacy will also playing their own angles — often to our own detriment — and in doing so, they too contribute powerful disincentives for raising one’s “head above the parapet.”






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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.