> Internet > PAC 103 – The Transnational Subversion of Whistleblowers

PAC 103 – The Transnational Subversion of Whistleblowers The Loyalties of Edward Snowden, a Paradigmatic Case

By Adrien Cherqui

Translation: Lawrence Myers

Passage au crible n°103

SnowdenSource: Flickr

According to the files of the NSA (National Security Agency) revealed by Edward Snowden in July 2013, more than two billion emails and phone calls from Brazil were allegedly intercepted by the United States for a period of nearly ten years. In fact, the South American country is supposedly one of the principal targets of the surveillance program known as PRISM (Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management) along with Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

On December 17, 2013, the Whistleblower Edward Snowden published an open letter in the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. Speaking to the “Brazilian people”, he declares himself ready “to contribute” to the investigations of the Senate. But taking refuge in Russia since July 31, 2013, he underscores that “until a country gives [him] permanent political asylum, the American government will interfere in [his] ability to express himself”.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

Since the revelations of the website WikiLeaks, whistleblowers benefit from unprecedented media coverage. Drawing inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), and advocating protection of the freedom of speech, this association uncovered innumerable amounts of information. In 2010, the organization put online nearly 400,000 secret documents relative to the war in Iraq and more than 90,000 War Logs, in other words, confidential reports on the American army on the operations of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Afghanistan. Finally, it released 250,000 diplomatic cables from the Department of State. The source of these leaks, the American soldier Bradley E. Manning, was then condemned to thirty-five years in prison.

The year 2013 also marked a decisive turning point for the American administration. The former NSA analyst, Edward Snowden, brought to light several programs of mass surveillance piloted by the agency, such as XKeyscore or PRISM which made it possible to collect various data. Following these revelations, Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, estimated that “this will seriously harm the relationship between the European Union and the United States”. Several countries partnered with the American power, like France, Germany and China, were themselves allegedly monitored by the NSA, the organization responsible for the intelligence derived from electronic signals. We recall, for example, the telephone calls by the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, which were the target of this kind of espionage.

Facing numerous condemnations for these actions, a report filed by experts appointed by the White House, submitted on December 13, 2013, estimates that the NSA must change its surveillance practices. Amongst the 46 recommendations contained in this document, specialists advocate a better cooperation between the United States and their “close allies”, adding that “some of the authorities which have been created or developed in the wake of September 11th, unduly sacrifice the fundamental interests of individual freedoms, privacy and democratic governance”.

Theoretical framework

1. The breach of confidentiality as a repertoire of action. Structuring the interactions between different political units, the secret lies at the heart of inter-state relations. It’s the concealment of information that gives it, its importance. By detracting from the state’s monopoly of intelligence and by circulating this information freely on the Internet, via numerous media, whistleblowers have forged a powerful and innovative repertoire of action which decidedly brought their protest into the public arena.
2. Transparency, the constitutive element of a new loyalty. The symbolic action of these providers of confidential data is founded on the demand for absolute transparency in the diplomatic and governmental conduct of democracies. But this imperative, the foundation of their ideology, leads to a disqualification of the prevailing systems of loyalty.


The global revelations of the whistleblower Edward Snowden could easily have quickly passed by as a mere epiphenomenon. However, they instead correspond to a deep and irreversible movement. From now on, individuals interfere in international affairs and sometimes enter into direct competition with states. Since the WikiLeaks affair, these new stakeholders have shown themselves by revealing large amounts of information.

By violating the United State’s monopoly on its classified data, whistleblowers’ repertoire of action desecrates state authority. Their intelligence makes visible a world plagued by turmoil in which states are overtaken by networks of individuals, real underlying powers constituting a new power built on the knowledge and the mastery of information. This phenomenon corresponds to what Joseph Nye qualified as cyberpower. In other words, it refers to the ability of certain people to mobilize cyberspace, and beyond being able to resort to its specific tools. As an illustration, let us recall that this form of power threatened the process of negotiating the transatlantic free trade agreement. In the same way, following the disclosures by Edward Snowden, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, suspended an official visit to Washington and condemned this American espionage in the General Assembly of the UN.

But dealing in secrecy necessarily supposes associating it with the concept of loyalty. In this way, let us underline the common point which unites Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden: the former was a military analyst, while the latter operated successively for the CIA and the NSA. Both worked for the American government. Yet, if they have not fulfilled their commitments to reserve and confidentiality towards their respective institutions, they have, however, remained faithful to their cause and to their transparency-based ethos. This civil disobedience corresponds to a repository system while suppressing the only loyalty they demonstrated previously to their state. This form of protest highlights the fact that they have indeed become “actors outside of sovereignty”, capable of desecrating public power. In other words, we are more so dealing with the prioritization of several loyalties rather than with the absence of loyalty altogether. We are indeed dealing with a conflict of loyalties. While they discard their primary function as analysts in the service of governmental agencies and the army and while they have defected, the action of these whistleblowers actually remains conform to their values. In this way, the systems of loyalty to the state find themselves disqualified by the refusal to accord the least bit of opacity or impunity to governments. This shows us how much whistleblowers go beyond and contradict the simple state framework. Above all, they register their interventions in the framework of a global civil society at the heart of which this model of transnational protest movement is organized. Within it, new configurations are structured which defend Human Rights, Civil Liberties and free Internet; leading them at the same time to stigmatize all authoritarian excesses of democratic regimes. It is obvious that whistleblowers are taking part in this dynamic. Thus we observe today a strong interdependence between these activities and medias such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, El País or the journalist Glenn Greenwald, as many stakeholders who have the resources necessary to analyze, organize and disseminate these leaks.

Alastdair Roberts, « WikiLeaks : L’illusion de transparence », Revue Internationale des Sciences Administratives, 78 (1), 2012, p. 123-140.
Dewerpe Alain, Espion : Une anthropologie historique du secret d’État contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 1994. Coll. Bibliothèques des Histoires.
Gomart Thomas, « Écrire l’histoire des relations internationales après WikiLeaks », Revue des deux mondes, mai 2011, p. 83-94.
Hayes Graeme, Ollitrault Sylvie, La désobéissance civile, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2013. Coll. Contester.
Laroche Josepha (Éd.), La Loyauté dans les relations internationales, 2e éd., Paris, L’Harmattan, 2011. Coll. Chaos International.
Laroche Josepha, « La désacralisation du monopole diplomatique des États », in : Josepha Laroche (Éd.), Passage au crible de la scène mondiale 2011, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, pp. 35-38.
Rosenau James N., Turbulence in World Politics: a Theory of Change and Continuity, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1990.
Simmel Georg, Secret et sociétés secrètes, [1908], trad., Paris, Circé, 1998.