National Security Agency seal

Information about the United States’ Prism program was leaked by Edward Snowden  to the Washington Post and the Guardian. Some people are casting Snowden as a traitor while others are lauding him as a hero. Some are presenting him as motivated by pure narcissism.

People have a tendency to present their actions in the most favorable light, so it is hardly surprising that Snowden claims that his  motivation was ethical in nature:

The N.S.A. has built an infrastructure that allows it to intercept almost everything. With this capability, the vast majority of human communications are automatically ingested without targeting. If I wanted to see your e-mails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts. I can get your e-mails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.

I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.

If Snowden is being honest about his motivation, then a case can be made that he acted rightly. That is, he acted in accord with his moral conscience. While he might have been in error, it is unreasonable to fault a person who acts in this manner-at least if the person’s moral conscience is properly informed. While ignorance can be an excuse, willful ignorance or unwarranted ignorance do not provide a moral excuse.

In the case of Snowden, it would be unreasonable to claim that he was ignorant of the general business of the NSA. It is a matter of general knowledge that the NSA is in the business of gathering information domestically. It is also a matter of general knowledge that since 9/11 domestic spying has been a rather flexible sort of matter. As such, Snowden should have not been morally shocked that the NSA engaged in such activities.

It could be replied that while Snowden should have been aware of the general business of the NSA, he was initially unaware of the extent of Prism. This does have considerable  plausibility-the Prism program was (before the leak) top secret and hence Snowden would almost certainly not have known the details about it prior to his employment. As such, Snowden could plausible claim ignorance in this matter. It could also be replied that Snowden changed his mind over time.

Even if Snowden acted from a moral motivation, there is still the question of whether or not his actions were well considered. After all, a person could act from his conscience, but the actions could be poorly considered. In the case of Snowden and the NSA, Snowden elected to expose a program that he knew was legal and this certainly complicates matters. After all, it is one thing to leak information about illegal activities and quite another to leak information about legal activities.

The obvious reply to this is that what is legal is not the same as what is ethical (except for those who accept legalism). As such, the legal Prism program could be unethical. Assuming that a citizen should expose the moral misdeeds of the state, if the Prism program is immoral, then Snowden could have acted rightly in exposing the secrets.

Obviously enough, a rather important matter is whether or not Snowden had good grounds on which to believe that Prism is an immoral program. But this is a matter for another time.

Getting back to the main issue, the Guardian and the Post did not publish most of the information that Snowden leaked to them-they decided that it should not be made public. A case could be made that Snowden’s leak was somewhat irresponsible in that he leaked far more than was needed to expose misdeeds and this excessive leaking could thus be regarded as unethical. It could also be taken as evidence that he was not motivated by moral reasons but by some other factors. Then again, it could be argued that he just engaged in poor decision making in this regard.

It is also worth considering that Snowden apparently went straight to leaking rather than attempting to address his concerns through legal and proper channels. After all, there are mechanisms in place for such matters. However, it could be replied that Snowden believed that this was not a viable option. The Obama administration, despite is professed support for whistleblowers and transparency, has been rather non-transparent and has established a reputation as being rather harsh on whistleblowers. There is also the question of who Snowden could have gone to in order to address his concerns-as noted above, everything being done was legal and had the blessing of all the relevant authorities. So, if he believed that all the folks in the government were involved in this and accepted it as legal, he could hardly be expected to take his concerns to them.

It is also worth noting that Snowden fled the United States to Hong Kong. When asked about this, he said that “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent.” Given that Hong Kong is now controlled by China (which certainly does not have a commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent), this raises some concerns. It could be the case that Snowden really believes that Hong Kong is a bastion of free speech and will protect him from the United States or perhaps he is acting pragmatically and seeking protection from a power that can stand up to the United States. In any case, there is the obvious concern that China now has easy access to Snowden and the secrets he stole from the NSA. It is also worth considering that Snowden’s motivations were not ethical but practical, namely that he was motivated from gain. His future actions will help address this matter.

In general terms, Snowden does bring up the old issue of the conflict of the conscience of the individual with the orders of the state. Assuming, of course, that Snowden truly acted from his conscience. I do not, obviously enough, know the answer to this. However, I do believe that the Prism program is morally dubious (at best) and while it went through all the secret legal processes, I do think a good case can be made that the program violated constitutional rights. But, I will leave this issue to the constitutional lawyers.

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