Monday, June 10, 2013

Not the Post I Wanted to Write

Last night, the name of Edward Snowden dominated my Facebook news feed.

If you haven't heard of him, you will soon: he is the alleged 'whistleblower' who leaked information about the National Security Administration's unlawful, unjust, tyrannical and draconian PRISM program - the direct access by federal agents to data stored by Google, Facebook, and a host of other internet giants.

It has been a timely revelation as the Obama administration is under fire for various other scandals, from potential knowledge or even involvement in the IRS's politicization of tax laws for targeting and intimidation of certain groups, to wiretapping of members of the "free" press... the list goes on and on. In the wake of these most recent details focusing on the NSA in particular, for example, we're learning that the same agency "has at times mistakenly intercepted the private email messages and phone calls of Americans who had no link to terrorism," as NBC News reports.

But my joy over these details coming to light is tempered by ambivalence... because heroic as Edward Snowden's risk to his own security and livelihood has been, his overall course of action has perhaps not been wholly praiseworthy.

You see, it seems he may have lied.
Three weeks ago, Snowden made final preparations that resulted in last week's series of blockbuster news stories. At the NSA office in Hawaii where he was working, he copied the last set of documents he intended to disclose.
He then advised his NSA supervisor that he needed to be away from work for "a couple of weeks" in order to receive treatment for epilepsy, a condition he learned he suffers from after a series of seizures last year.
As he packed his bags, he told his girlfriend that he had to be away for a few weeks, though he said he was vague about the reason. "That is not an uncommon occurrence for someone who has spent the last decade working in the intelligence world."
On May 20, he boarded a flight to Hong Kong, where he has remained ever since.
 So, prima facie it would seem that Edward employed deception both in the case of his supervisor (in order to maintain his own security and be able to successfully deliver the leaked information to an outside source) and in the case of his girlfriend (whom he was presumably protecting by providing plausible deniability).

I know there are some who are already seeing red at my audacity for bringing this up or pointing it out. We all want a hero to celebrate in this, and Edward's actions are, as I said, heroic in the main. And we might also wonder what else he could have done, when dealing with such a leviathan threat as the NSA - a question I'm still wrestling with. Compared to the questions involved in other debates I've had on the morality of lying, this situation actually does have some affinities to the test cases people like to trot out concerning Nazis coming to the door, etc.: the NSA and their federal partners are as close to the reality of a modern totalitarian secret police as any US citizen in this day and age is likely to encounter. It's not as though Snowden could have given some trifling and lame excuse to his supervisor so as to raise suspicion, or he'd likely never have made it out of the country. He couldn't have simply told his family the truth, either, in all likelihood, because it would have entailed unfair and unnecessary risk to them (and, I'd be willing to lay dollars to dimes that the NSA taps and monitors the phones - not just work phones, but private numbers - of all its employees and contractors who have access to higher-level security information - just something worth thinking about).

This situation, emphatically, has some very different moral contours compared to other modern situations I've considered elsewhere on this blog. Please don't mistake me as discounting those differences.

The thing is, I'm not writing about Snowden today in order to provoke another debate or because I want in any way to condemn him. In a way, this post is actually a very personal one for me.

Because when I first read about Snowden last night, my heart swelled with pride and joy at his heroism and the wonderful fruit that his risk may produce for those of us who value freedom and shudder at the thought of where our country has been heading. I wanted instantly to "share" the article from Facebook on my own Timeline and everywhere else I had an outlet (including here), praising Snowden and calling for more actions of this sort.

But my conscience bucked like an unruly horse before a hurdle and sent me reeling: because wouldn't posting and praising this be considered inconsistent by any honest reader who has followed my argumentation in the debate over truth telling and lying so far? Wouldn't my staunch advocacy of telling the truth not only when it is easy but especially when it is difficult come back in a way to haunt me, carrying in its train accusations of hypocrisy and a double-standard? Was I prepared to parse all of the ways in which this might be different and argue from situational ethics how here we have an exigency that might actually merit some kind of application of nuanced "war ethics" and thus be an apples/oranges comparison to other situations I've argued against? In that event, could I even convince myself - let alone others - that these distinctions attended real differences, that these arguments were ultimately tenable?

In the end, I didn't have satisfying answers to these questions, but only more questions on top of them. So I decided to make use of this venue in a way I've always found it to be valuable to me, to hash out questions and invite others to help find the answers as coworkers in the truth. This isn't the post I wanted to write about Snowden. But it's the only one I can write right now.


  1. Hi!

    Nice post, i think you rise a really important issue, what should he have done? is it justified to lie a bit in order to advance a more transcedental truth?

    I believe it is, he did the right thing in a very complex scenario, because if he had told the truth he'd put his family in unnecesary danger and, most likely, the goverment would have shout him up and the public would never know about the far bigger lies and crimes of the Obama administration.

    His civic and moral duty was to expose the wicked ways of the NSA. He was doing what his conscience demanded.

  2. Here's my confusion with the 'lying is always wrong' line of thinking. Why is this restricted to only lying? Why aren't the other 10 Commandments also always wrong, most notably, killing. Why are we allowed to be in the military? Why are we allowed to kill in self-defense? I think if we follow this premise to its natural conclusion, that lying is always wrong no matter the circumstance, then we must also conclude that killing is always wrong, no matter the circumstance. If we care about the circumstance we are being consequentialists, or so it seems. To me, killing is way worse than lying. So why isn't the Catholic Church a pacifist Church? And if there is a good moral reason for it not being pacifist, why doesn't the same reasoning apply to lying?

  3. Thanks for your comments, Gerardo and Faith.

    Lying is a specially defined moral species, like "murder." It is a fully human and moral act, and this means that the definition of it in moral theology takes into account certain definite considerations: the object of the act, the intention of the doer, and the circumstances surrounding the act. In a similar way (and to answer your objection, at least in part, Faith), the moral act in violation of the 5th commandment is "murder" which is always a sin. "Killing" is a broader notion, and includes various moral acts, only one of which is murder. Killing in self-defense is not murder because it is distinguished by the object chosen by the individual: the individual chooses to protect himself or herself by means of taking violent action, but does not primarily or willfully choose the death of the other.

    There's more I can say, but I would first recommend that you read down further on the main page of my blog here where I've written about the topic at length; rather than rehearsing old arguments, that would be the most timely way of addressing the issue at hand.

  4. Having difficulty seeing where Snowden lied. Morality does not require one to give all the reasons one might be doing something - perhaps he will also get treatment for his epilepsy while in Hongkong, or Iceland if he makes it there? Epilepsy is not something that goes away on its own.

    Prudently, he gave his girlfriend a vague reason for his leaving - realizing she would be placed in great danger if he told her all his reasons.

    Therefore, I don't see him lying. In addition, I believe we all owe him a debt of gratitude for all he has revealed about the doings of our government. We Americans need to know this.

    Their argument that it 'endangers' security is false - it harms no one. It isn't as though they were going to stop it.

  5. Should we not also consider that he may have been wrong to have broken the law? I am surprised no one has mentioned this.


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