Edward Snowden, the whistleblower. Edward Snowden, the hero. Edward Snowden, the traitor.
It is likely that none of those descriptions is entirely accurate.
What cannot be debated is that Edward Snowden is a 29-year-old systems analyst. He worked in information technology for the CIA, and then went on to work for private contractors who do work for the National Security Administration. In late May, he began funneling classified NSA materials to The Guardian newspaper.
The documents he surreptitiously copied and then leaked revealed that, after the Boston Marathon bombings, the NSA began indiscriminately collecting metadata on phone calls made and received by Verizon customers. They also included a powerpoint presentation outlining a program called Prism, which collects user information from sites such as Google and Facebook. The presentation was labeled “Top Secret,” with distribution forbidden even to foreign allies. Another tool, called Boundless Informant, was exposed as a device the NSA uses to record and analyze where its intelligence comes from.
Snowden admits that he leaked the information out of self-interest. He does not want to live, he says, in “a world where there’s no privacy.” He also said that the NSA’s expanding surveillance net poses an “existential threat to democracy.” He blames the government for operating outside the realm of public oversight, which allows people like himself to “have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.” In an effort to reverse that course, Snowden insists that he “carefully evaluated every single document [he] disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest.”
There are a lot of issues wrapped up in the decisions Edward Snowden made: whether our surveillance state should be growing, and if it should, how it should; whether the political machine has any control over the national security machine; whether the public has any idea of what the government is doing in the name of national defense, and if we have a right to. Those are big questions. Existential questions, even. They are not questions I’m going to try to unravel here.
I’m more interested in this question: should Edward Snowden have done what he did? I don’t think so.
Let’s assume, for the purpose of this argument, that the information Snowden leaked is valuable in the way he and his supporters have said it is: a check-mate to an ever-broadening, increasingly-secretive surveillance state. Even if that end is justified, the means are not.
Regardless of your opinion on the size or trustworthiness of government, most can agree that it can only approximate proper functioning if there are commonly-accepted rules of the road. Those rules are almost worthless if there is not some basic level of trust that they will be followed. This must be especially true in the realm of national security, which trades in confidential, classified, and highly-classified information as a matter of course.
How information gets classified, and who gets to decide how those classifications are assigned, is obviously beyond the purview of most of us. The point, though, is that when information receives its classification, we all have to trust that it will be treated accordingly. You and I understand this from watching movies; employees in the national security industry understand this from the very nature of their job. This understanding must have been fundamental to the employment Snowden accepted over the course of a decade from several different employers in or connected to the government. If he is smart enough to use phrases like “existential threat,” he is certainly smart enough to have understood this much.
Snowden decided he could ignore those rules, though. More than that, this young man, who is not yet even old enough to run for President of the United States, combed through protected materials to pick out the items he thought were “legitimately in the public interest,” and that he thought should no longer be a secret. The reporter he leaked the materials to insists that nothing they revealed “even remotely jeopardizes national security.”
Put bluntly, none of that was Snowden’s call to make, much less his journalist’s.
Strong rules regarding confidentiality exist in a number of professions. In the legal profession, the attorney-client privilege is penetrable only in the rarest of circumstances. The same protection is afforded in the doctor-patient context. The reason for the safeguards is exactly so that information flows freely among the people authorized to receive it. The goal is to prevent either party – especially the party divulging sensitive information – from worrying about the negative effects of telling the closest version of the truth.
I cannot tell a competitor software company about a legal decision my company makes because I happen to think it better serves capitalism to divulge it. If I put myself in the business of divulging client confidences because my personal value system dictates that the information must be shared to serve some higher aim, I would be fired and disbarred. A doctor cannot take an ad out publicizing a patient’s chemical dependency in the hopes it will shame him or her into seeking help. That doctor’s medical license would be revoked.
By excusing himself from the confidentiality limitations of his profession, Snowden has threatened the very privacy he claims he wants to protect. He also has done exactly what he criticizes the government for facilitating – taking actions far beyond his proverbial pay grade. If Edward Snowden can decide that a ” Top Secret” power point presentation should be vetted by the entire world, why can’t Jane Doe make the same decision about notes from a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff? Or your divorce papers? Or your toxicology report?
I began by assuming the information Snowden leaked has democratic value. That assumption compels the conclusion that Snowden should have taken his concerns somewhere. The Department of Justice, any member of Congress, a Special Counsel denominated under federal law for fielding “whistleblower” complaints – those would have been more appropriate starts than a civilian reporter with an Internet connection. Even if a reporter was Snowden’s preferred outlet, surely he could have gotten traction by describing his concerns, without leaking powerpoints labeled TOP SECRET in every available corner.
The job of our national security apparatus is to evaluate the trustworthiness of those who may pose a threat to our country. Now, our national security apparatus has to spend time questioning the trustworthiness of the people within it. That’s a quandary we will suffer the effects of, thanks to the decision-making of one young IT professional. Because just as you can’t unring a bell, you can’t unblow a whistle.
Featured image via The Guardian.