Government workers must carry out policies, not make them.
This week investigative reporter Laura Poitras' new documentary about the controversial Edward Snowden is released nationwide. Early reviews of "Citizenfour" are very favorable and describe the documentary as a riveting examination into the mindset and motivation of a person that for better or worse, had a tremendous impact on our perceptions of national security and privacy in the post 9-11 era. Needless to say, it's probably very thought provoking and certainly worth seeing, regardless of your opinion of Snowden and his actions.
With this new in-depth and first-hand look at how and why one of the biggest public disclosures of classified information in history came to be, it may be useful to reflect on its wider impact and meaning for the country.
One thing that is often missed, and that I myself did not realize at first, is that what Snowden has revealed has at least some degree of legal cover and or justification. I personally do not like the idea of massive government surveillance of our private communications without warrants based on probable cause and it seems reasonable that such policies will eventually be found to be unconstitutional in the long run. However, as far as we can see, the NSA acted under the belief and guidance that programs such as PRSIM were entirely legal.
This means that we cannot really call Edward Snowden a "whistleblower" in the traditional sense. That term typically refers to the uncovering and sharing of illegal activity on the part of an organization. You and I might think it is morally unacceptable and unconstitutional to spy on innocent Americans, or that it is bad national security policy in general, but if the programs were deemed legal at the time, then there was nothing really to blow the whistle on.
Now, certainly we have gotten a much better and more specific understanding of what programs are in place to detect acts of terrorism, and this can and should inform what policies we push our representatives to pursue in the future. Furthermore, our representatives should have revealed much more detail about these programs much earlier so that the American people could have some chance at deciding if they wanted them in place or not. As I have argued before, we should at least get to decide if we want to have each other monitored in this way, it may very well be that a plurality of voters would support it.
Still, even though we can see the ensuing policy debates as positive and more information generally good for the functioning of our republic, the reality is that Snowden took it upon himself to release a very large amount of classified information in direct violation of the law and the responsibility entrusted to him. His motivations seem to be highly idealistic, I don't think we can question that, and I don't think it serves much of a purpose to call him a traitor. In his mind, he was acting in the public interest and in defense of our most cherished values. That does not in any way justify what he did though.
The problem with the mindset of Edward Snowden is that it puts in jeopardy our entire intelligence gathering system, not to mention the military and law enforcement operations that act on that intelligence to stop madmen from carrying out their heinous plans.
When you serve in the military, even in the very basic way I have, you come to understand that the rules and regulations in place are there for a reason, even if you can't exactly see those reasons at the time. Often those rules exist to make teamwork and collaboration possible in situations that are highly chaotic and ambiguous, not to mention risky. More importantly though, we simply don't want low level or even senior people in government agencies, making decisions that could have major, foreign policy ramifications.
I respect Snowden taking a stand on his principles, but by doing what he did he may have inadvertently sowed the seeds for the overturning of other principles just as important to a free society. One key principle is the setting of policy by duly elected representatives of the people. The military and related agencies are tasked with carrying out the policies set forth by elected officials, they are not supposed to make policy themselves. If we accept what Snowden did as right, then we potentially open the door to members of the military and intelligence agencies doing all manner of things according to their own sense of what is best for the country. I'm not saying serving in a government agency or the military means you have to be a robot, only that you have to put your personal feelings aside and accomplish the mission assigned to you.
By Aaron Stipkovich: Edward Joseph Snowden (born 1983) is an American technical contractor, whistleblower and former United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA). Snowden released classified material on top-secret NSA programs. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich | Link | Edward Snowden, Cia, Nsa, Glee, Press, Russia, Traitor, Leak, Secret, Whistleblower,
The legitimacy of that mission and corresponding orders comes not from your own sense of what the best path is, but rather from the people entrusting their interests to the civilian leadership through the process of elections. That's why if you disagree with those policies you should not work in an agency tasked to carry them out but instead seek reform through the political process. Snowden could have resigned and become a champion of civil liberties and privacy, he could have used his inside knowledge of government programs to file specific Freedom of Information Act requests and initiate public policy debates that way. He could have also waited until he found something that was clearly illegal and then used proper channels to get it to members of congress. People like Rep. Justin Amash or Senators Rand Paul and Ron Wyden would have very likely heard him out at least. The point is there were several legal and less damaging ways to serve the interests of liberty without violating his responsibly to protect classified information.
I personally think there is a general over-classification of important information relevant to the public, but as mentioned you can't just disregard the law because you think it is dumb. Perhaps if people were being tortured or killed and Snowden took it upon himself to let the world know, then it could be the actions of a whistleblower. As far as we can tell though, even the most egregious actions of the NSA have not actually harmed any Americans. Yes privacy was violated, but we simply have not seen cases of the NSA or other government agencies using access to our communications against citizens in terms of political persecution or the like. Given Snowden's own revelations, the vast majority of effort has gone towards identifying and stopping terrorists not towards nefarious activities against innocent Americans. Of course we need to be vigilant and we should petition our representatives to reign in the government now, lest the temptation to act on the knowledge they have on us gets the better of those in power later. Yet we cannot condone or abide people releasing what they think should be in the public domain. History may judge Snowden's actions as justified in the future, but as of now they were simply wrong.