June 11, 2013— -- Before he was labeled a "hero" or a "traitor," Ed Snowden, the intelligence contractor who leaked the details of a secret domestic data mining program, was called a "whistle-blower."
The term "whistle-blower" has been used broadly by his defenders, including Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who first published documents provided by Snowden detailing the PRISM program to monitor the phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens.
"Every time there's a whistle-blower, somebody who exposes government wrongdoing, the tactic of the government is to try and demonize them as a traitor," Greenwald told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.
But for each of Snowden's champions, there are others less willing to anointment him with a title usually reserved for those who expose criminal activity, fraud or corruption.
"Why is media using sympathetic word 'whistleblower' [for] Edward #Snowden, who leaked secret #NSA program? He broke the law & made us less safe," tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "A 'whistleblower' is person who reveals wrongdoing, corruption, illegal activity. None of this applies here even if you oppose US [government] policy."
Federal law broadly protects whistle-blowers with one exception, employees who are privy to the nation's secrets, said Professor Richard E. Moberly, associate dean of the University of Nebraska College of Law.
"The definition of a whistle-blower depends on the context," he said. "Outside of national security we tend to think very broadly. [Whistle-blowers expose] not only illegal activity, but abuses of power, fraud, financial misconduct, and even unethical choices."
But employees entrusted with state secrets "should be more limited in how and what to disclose," he said.
Under the law, intelligence employees have their own system to report activity they believe violates the law or is unethical. Employees are instructed to report wrongdoing to Congress or their agency's inspector general, Moberly said.
The press, which has made heroes of past whistle-blowers like Jeffrey Wigand who exposed big tobacco's lies and Frank Serpico, an NYPD detective who took on police corruption, have selectively used the word "whistle-blower" to describe Snowden.
The Associated Press, which sets the style for many of its member agencies, issued a memo on Monday telling reporters to call Snowden a "leaker" rather than a "whistleblower."
"A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It's not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral," wrote AP standards editor Tom Kent. "Whether the actions exposed by Snowden and [Pfc. Bradley] Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point."