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.