If you’re not disturbed by the idea that the federal government might have carte blanche over your phone records and online data, you must lead a really boring life.
Everybody has something to hide. Everybody. I don’t know how you feel about your personal life; I don’t want anyone but my family and friends involved in mine.
Not only that, but I don’t want the federal government involved in my business either. I don’t mind paying my fair share of taxes, but the dreaded IRS has somehow managed to get its scheming little fingers into everything.
I bet we’ve all had run-ins with the confounding Alternative Minimum Tax. Then there’s the whole scandal over targeting and releasing private information of conservative groups and individuals. And who knows what abuses ObamaCare will bring.
Which is why I’d love to get behind Congressman Rand Paul and everyone else who thinks the NSA surveillance program is a huge government overreach and a breach of our Fourth Amendment rights and that whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero.
The only problem is I can’t do that.
You see, I think there are two types of whistleblowers: Those who expose criminal acts and those who commit them. And like it or not, we’re a nation of laws, which makes the latter type a criminal.
In my view, that’s also a pretty good standard for determining whether whistleblowers are part of the solution or part of the problem. And I’m afraid that Edward Snowden may be part of the problem.
Here’s a whistleblower that did good: Sherron Watkins.
Watkins uncovered what she thought was some irregular accounting fraud as vice president of corporate development of Enron. She first ran it up the flagpole to CEO Ken Lay, which of course did no good. Ultimately she testified before Congress and that did help to lock up a slew of bad guys.
Yes, she was criticized for not blowing the whistle publicly and sooner than she did. To me, that’s a naïve view by those who’ve never been an executive. Given her somewhat limited knowledge of exactly what was going on and how high up the chain the fraud went, the steps Watkins took were entirely appropriate.
Then there was Greg Smith, the Goldman Sachs executive who supposedly blew the whistle on how Goldman Sachs benefited from the subprime mortgage mess by publishing that scathing resignation letter in the New York Times.
Here’s the thing about that. Smith derided Goldman’s leadership for putting profits ahead of customers, but there was nothing we hadn’t heard before. It all came out in a Congressional investigation two years earlier. And Goldman didn’t do anything illegal.
Smith preached about doing the right thing, but in my book, that would have been to let management know how he felt before publicly crucifying the company that paid him millions of dollars, not after he was passed over for a raise and promotion.
At the time, I suspected that Smith was aiming to become the next Michael Lewis. Indeed, he got his book deal, but it was no Liar’s Poker.
Smith was actually a third type of whistle blower. He didn’t expose or commit any criminal acts. He was just a selfish, self-serving, disgruntled opportunist who sold his soul to make a buck, in my opinion.
Which brings us to Edward Snowden.
Snowden may very well expose some wrongdoing, but in my view, he hasn’t yet. I can see how collecting phone records can be a big help in bringing down domestic terrorist cells. And so far, the PRISM program looks specific enough to not be a breach of the fourth amendment. Everything looks to be on the up and up.
Granted, all that data can be used for unintended purposes. And that’s the real concern here.
What really concerns me is that the NSA had someone with high-level security clearance on the payroll that was willing to breach national security, reveal secrets to our enemies, and flee the nation because he uncovered something that didn’t break any laws but did happen to rub his personal sense of morality the wrong way.
If you think about it, Snowden didn’t have to do it the way he did. He could have used legitimate congressional channels. He could relatively easily have brought his concerns to the attention of Ron Paul, a congressman that he reportedly supported for president. But he didn’t. He chose a different path. And that says a lot about the man.
In my opinion, that puts Snowden in the same camp with Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He’s not part of the solution and he’s not just part of the problem. He’s dangerous.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.