Elon Musk’s Long Obsession With Sabotage

For the Tesla and SpaceX founder, the acts of rogue employees are not just fireable offenses—they’re treason.

Elon Musk
Kiichiro Sato / AP

In October 2008, the news outlet Valleywag published a letter from an employee at Tesla. The company, just five years old then, had called employees into a meeting and revealed some troubling news, the writer said. Tesla had only $9 million in the bank. Meanwhile, the letter writer claimed, the company had taken more than 1,200 preorders for its electric cars—thousands of dollars in deposits—but delivered fewer than 50 to customers.

“I cannot conscientiously be a bystander anymore and allow my company to deceive the public and defraud our dear customers,” the employee wrote. “Our customers and the general public are the reason Tesla is so loved. The fact that they are being lied to is just wrong.”

The employee’s name was not revealed. But Elon Musk found this person anyway.

The way he did it is the stuff of Hardy Boys novels. According to the Ashlee Vance’s 2015 biography of the tech entrepreneur, Musk copied the text of the letter and pasted into a Word document, and checked the size of the file. He pored over the office’s printer activity logs, looking for a document that matched the one he had created. It’s not clear why this employee would print out the letter that appeared on Valleywag, but Musk’s hunch proved correct. He got a hit on the logs, and used that information to track down the person who carried out the printing job. The employee wrote a letter of apology and resigned.

It’s no surprise that Musk decided to play detective and pursue the suspect in this mystery. And the employee was indeed a suspect, from the moment the 2008 letter became public. Like any business leader, Musk prizes loyalty among his employees. But for Musk, the actions of rogue employees aren’t evidence of workplace displeasure or disobedience (some of which are not unfounded—Musk later confirmed the Tesla employee’s claim that the company was running on $9 million). They are, regardless of their motive, not just fireable offenses, but treason. Sabotage.

This is clear in Musk’s recent reaction to another mutinous employee within Tesla’s ranks. On Sunday night, Musk sent an email, obtained and reported by CNBC, to employees about his recent discovery:

I was dismayed to learn this weekend about a Tesla employee who had conducted quite extensive and damaging sabotage to our operations. This included making direct code changes to the Tesla Manufacturing Operating System under false usernames and exporting large amounts of highly sensitive Tesla data to unknown third parties.

The full extent of his actions are not yet clear, but what he has admitted to so far is pretty bad. His stated motivation is that he wanted a promotion that he did not receive. In light of these actions, not promoting him was definitely the right move.

Then Musk zoomed out a bit, expanding his view of potential sabotage:

However, there may be considerably more to this situation than meets the eye, so the investigation will continue in depth this week. We need to figure out if he was acting alone or with others at Tesla and if he was working with any outside organizations.

As you know, there are a long list of organizations that want Tesla to die. These include Wall Street short sellers, who have already lost billions of dollars and stand to lose a lot more. Then there are the oil and gas companies, the wealthiest industry in the world—they don’t love the idea of Tesla advancing the progress of solar power and electric cars. Don’t want to blow your mind, but rumor has it that those companies are sometimes not super nice. Then there are the multitude of big gas/diesel car-company competitors. If they’re willing to cheat so much about emissions, maybe they’re willing to cheat in other ways?

It seems that as Tesla has expanded, so has Musk’s perception of sabotage. His email sounds like a warning that threats to Tesla’s public image can come in all kinds of packages, from rogue employees with access to sensitive materials to outsiders from the “long list of organizations that want Tesla to die.” Perhaps the threat of the latter feels more acute now because Musk’s businesses have shaken off the label of the ankle biters that critics believed them to be. When you’re not an ankle biter, you’re the top dog. And, according to Musk’s philosophy, when you’re the top dog, your competitors want—and will try—to knock you back down.

“The forces arrayed against us are many and incredibly powerful,” Musk wrote in a different email, sent to Tesla employees in February 2017 after a former production worker wrote in detail on Medium about the company’s working conditions—long hours, “excessive mandatory overtime,” a shortage of manpower, and frequent injuries. “This is David vs. Goliath if David were six inches tall!” Musk said.

Musk considered “outside forces” in 2016, when a SpaceX rocket exploded on the launchpad as it fueled up for an engine test. The company examined seriously the possibility of sabotage in its investigation of the incident. “We literally thought someone had shot the rocket,” Musk said in an interview with Christian Davenport, a Washington Post reporter, published in Davenport’s 2018 book, The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos.“We found things that looked like bullet holes, and we calculated that someone with a high-powered rifle, if they had shot the rocket in the right location, the exact same thing would have happened.”

SpaceX even got the U.S. government involved. “[W]e put pressure on the Air Force and the [Federal Aviation Administration] to go collect whatever forensic data was possible,” Gwynne Shotwell, the president and CEO of SpaceX, told Davenport. “The first thing you do is think it’s some outside force, right. Because we couldn’t figure out how in the world this could have happened.”

Eventually, SpaceX engineers determined the cause of the explosion was a problem with a pressure vessel in a liquid oxygen tank on the rocket’s upper stage. The feds ruled out sabotage, too.

In moments of perceived nefariousness, Musk usually asks his employees for their attentiveness for future threats. He did the same this week. “Please be extremely vigilant, particularly over the next few weeks as we ramp up the production rate to 5k/week,” he wrote in the email to his employees. “This is when outside forces have the strongest motivation to stop us.”

Worker safety at Tesla has been the subject of several investigations in last year, including by BuzzFeed, The Guardian, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Musk has emphasized that employees have several outlets for their vigilance besides the press, encouraging them to bring concerns to their managers, safety representatives at the company, or the human-resources department. If employees want to be anonymous, they can register their notes through something called the Integrity Hotline. Musk referred to it in his email to staff in 2017, saying the resource “applies broadly to any problems you notice at our company.”

The hotline’s name fits nicely with Musk’s philosophy on employee loyalty, or lack thereof. Integrity: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.” The name reads like a warning. It automatically bestows any incoming concerns with the benefit of belief. Complaints made elsewhere—in the press, in lawsuits, in the handling of sensitive information, true or false—won’t get the same treatment.