Imagine a CIA agent who witnessed behavior that violated the Constitution, the law, and core human-rights protections, like torturing a prisoner. What would we have her do? Government officials say that there are internal channels in place to protect whistleblowers and that intelligence employees with security clearances have a moral obligation to refrain from airing complaints publicly via the press.
In contrast, whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea, Manning and Edward Snowden—as well as journalistic entities like the Washington Post, The Guardian, and the New York Times—believe that questionable behavior by intelligence agencies should sometimes be exposed, even when classified, partly because internal whistleblower channels are demonstrably inadequate.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular leak advances the public interest. There is always a moral obligation to keep some secrets (e.g., the names of undercover agents in North Korea). But if official channels afford little protection to those who report serious wrongdoing, or fail to remedy egregiously unlawful behavior, the case for working within the system rather than going to the press falls apart.* As Hilary Bok, writing as Hilzoy, pointed out in 2008, while defending a Bush-era whistleblower:
It is generally better for all concerned if whistle-blowers operate within the system, and it is dangerous when people freelance. But there's one big exception to this rule: when the system has itself been corrupted. When you're operating within a system in which whistle-blowers' concerns are not addressed—where the likelihood that any complaint you make within the system will be addressed is near zero, while the likelihood that you will be targeted for reprisals is high—then no sane person who is motivated by a desire to have his or her concern addressed will work within that system. That means that if ... you want whistleblowers to work within the system, you need to ensure that that system actually works.
Today, there is no credible argument that internal channels offer adequate protection to whistleblowers or remedy most serious misdeeds. U.S. officials claim otherwise. They know that no American system of official secrets can be legitimate if it serves to hide behavior that violates the Constitution, the law, or the inalienable rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence.