Thursday, May 26, 2016

Whistleblower; traitor; none of the above?

An op-ed in today's New York Times argues that because former NSA contractor Edward Snowden acted in the "overriding public interest" in leaking top secret documents revealing NSA surveillance activities, he should be allowed to raise a "public interest defense" were he to return to the United States to face outstanding criminal charges for violating the Espionage Act. The author argues that "the least the law should do is take full account of the whistle-blower’s intentions."
 Snowden (not to be confused with Thoreau, Ghandi, or King)

I sometimes think I am the only person I've met who's willing to say that Snowden has done both good and harm. Undeniably, his revelations about NSA's legally dubious bulk collection programs have been of considerable public service; it forced the Obama administration to far greater openness about the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's decisions regarding NSA's secret activities, and indeed the court itself acknowledged that Snowden's unauthorized release of its earlier decisions "engendered considerable public interest and debate" and agreed that further authorized declassification of its rulings would likewise "contribute to an informed debate." The subsequent action by Congress this year to end NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection program would almost certainly never occurred absent Snowden's decision to go public.

But many of Snowden's other leaks have been reckless and gratuitous, failing to make any moral or legal distinction between legitimate and properly secret SIGINT activities—such as intercepting and deciphering the communications of foreign diplomats or terrorist military units such as those of the Taliban in northwest Pakistan—versus the legally suspect and intrusive violations of Americans' own privacy by their government at home.

At the base of all this is the fact that Snowden's intentions—which the Times writer says ought to be taken into account in considering his guilt or innocence—are, like those of all whistleblowers, more complex than they want to present. Snowden is not a traitor in the strict legal meaning of the term, but his decision to place himself under the protection of Vladimir Putin's Russia was a morally disastrous, and morally obtuse, one.

All whistleblowers are egotists, but Snowden is definitely at the far end of the spectrum.

Snowden and his collaborator Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian have sophomorically and self-righteously insisted that any monitoring of any communications by the US government is a threat to "internet freedom" and "intellectual exploration and creativity" everywhere; Greenwald has arrogantly added that anyone who justifies NSA's foreign intelligence-gathering is merely sycophantically "venerating" and meekly obedient to "institutional authority" and the "establishment elite." (Whereas he and Snowden are courageously engaging in "radical dissent" from it.)

And I have been surprised how few of Snowden's champions even feel the need to address the moral questions about his own actions and intentions. Snowden sought out his job as an NSA contractor with the deliberate intention of gaining access to documents he planned from the outset to steal and reveal. He not only violated his oath in so doing but, much worse, duped 20 of his co-workers into giving him their passwords, which he claimed he needed in connection with his duties as a computer systems administrator. Most of those co-workers whom he betrayed were subsequently fired (and presumably also lost their security clearances, thus permanently ending their careers). This personal act of betrayal bespeaks a callousness and superiority that I for one find deeply disturbing.

Civil disobedience is a moral right of all citizens in a democracy, but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King and other moral giants who understood what was at stake recognized that part of the duty of those who defy the law in the name of what they see as a higher moral calling is a willingness to take the consequences society imposes on those who do disobey the law: indeed it was to point out the evil of the law as it exists that they were prepared to do so.