June 23, 2013; Foreign Policy

Given the broad parameters of the Obama administration’s “Insider Threat Program,” reported on in an excellent piece by Marisa Taylor and Jonathan Landay for the McClatchy newspaper chain, and the extensive roles of nonprofits as government contractors, it isn’t beyond imagination that nonprofit employees might find themselves in the awkward position of thinking of themselves as potential whistleblowers but treated by the federal government as illegal leakers.

You don’t have to be dealing with clandestine government activities like Edward Snowden to wander into this position. The Insider Threat Program includes coverage of leaks from the Peace Corps, the departments of Agriculture and Education, and even the Social Security Administration. Remember also that the Obama administration has been very aggressive in its treatment of whistleblowers, and defenses like Snowden’s—that he was revealing government practice that might violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution—might not work if the government’s practice, such as the NSA PRISM surveillance program, is deemed legal under the law (in this case, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act).

You might not want to choose from among Edward Snowden’s potential refuges of Russia, Venezuela, or Ecuador, but perhaps you’d like Iceland, which has a reputation for being asylum-friendly, or such popular asylum venues (per 1,000 population) as Malta, Sweden, Liechtenstein, Norway, or Cyprus. Writing for Foreign Policy, Brendan Koerner suggests five rules for Edward Snowden, wherever he ends up, with applicability for any of us that might find ourselves running afoul of the Insider Threat Program.

  1. Clearly define your political motive.“Extradition treaties typically include exceptions for crimes of a ‘political character.’”
  2. Stay quiet. “History has shown that big-mouthed fugitives run the risk of rubbing their hosts the wrong way. The classic example from the Vietnam Era was Eldridge Cleaver, the minister of information of the Black Panther Party. On the run from an attempted-murder charge in California in 1968, Cleaver escaped to Cuba…[but] ruined things fairly quickly by speaking candidly to reporters, particularly about the harsh treatment being accorded several imprisoned American hijackers. The irate Cubans forced Cleaver to move to Algeria, where [he]… eventually wore out his welcome…”
  3. Find allies on the ground.
  4. Make money“Staying on the lam is always more expensive than one might anticipate, especially when a mammoth entity like the United States of America is doing all it can to shut down your potential sources of income…Crowdsourced donations sound like a fine way to keep things going, but the WikiLeaks experience is not encouraging; last year, theattracted just $68,000 in handouts, barely enough to keep its servers running.”
  5. Do something fulfilling. “Plenty of the folks who hijacked planes to Cuba in the late 1960s and early 1970s can attest to this dilemma: many of the ones who settled down into normal lives in Havana, sometimes complete with spouses and children, eventually decided to return to the United States often because they had tired of their drab proletarian existences.”

Koerner writes with his tongue in his cheek for some of his tips, but the issue is really serious. Edward Snowden will never be able to return to his prior life, but his arena of activity was domestic security, which is both high profile and tendentious. What about nonprofit contractors whose activities aren’t quite so high-tech or James Bond-ish? Perhaps the Obama administration might consider rethinking the parameters of its Insider Threat Program so that run-of-the-mill nonprofit contractors working in much less sensitive areas don’t have to imagine that leaking information in the public interest will require them to apply for asylum in Ottawa, Brussels, or Vienna?—Rick Cohen