Snowden’s Retreat

Despite the fact that I defended Edward Snowden for his risky revelations about NSA, the apparent fact that he joined the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to have access to privileged information so he could then reveal that information to the American people is disturbing. It raises questions about his motives, suggesting that he contrived to perform an act which seems on its face to have been one of courage and evidence of deep convictions. Further, it is equally disturbing to read that he is now “hiding out” in the former Soviet Union where he appears to be safe from extradition.

Henry David Thoreau Courtesy of Wikipedia

Henry David Thoreau
Courtesy of Wikipedia

In classic cases of civil disobedience, which this seems to be on the surface, the person involved willingly faces punishment for his disobedience to a particular law. It is a specific law, or in Snowden’s case, a specific series of violations of the First Amendment, that is found objectionable — not law (or the system of laws) itself. The classic cases are those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were willing to face the consequences of their acts of disobedience — King’s to the laws supporting segregation and Thoreau protesting fugitive slave laws. In any event, the phrase “civil disobedience” implies clearly that the disobedient person recognized the legitimacy of law as such but has serious moral qualms about specific laws that seem to be a violation of “higher” laws of morality.  Hence the term civil disobedience. As Thoreau said in his essay on civil disobedience, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.” The appeal is almost always to a higher, moral law with the recognition that civil law as such is essential to the preservation of society.  As King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:

One may want to ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

Simple disobedience to laws with no intent to suffer consequences is anarchy or, possibly in the case of Snowden, treason. Unless there are mitigating circumstances about which we have yet to be informed, it would appear that Snowden is on rather weak moral grounds. This is not to say that I condone what NSA is doing. Quite the contrary. I regard it as a clear violation of the First Amendment. However, if we contrast Snowden’s actions with those of Pfc. Bradley Manning who “blew the whistle” on the U.S. Army and faces a military tribunal and a possible twenty-year prison sentence we can see the difference in sharp relief. Manning felt strongly that what was going on in Iraq was a violation of what we might call the laws of morality and he chose not only to reveal what he regarded as evil, but he also chose to face the consequences. His act was truly courageous; based on the information we are able to get from the public media, Snowden now appears to have had questionable motives in the first place and his unwillingness to accept the consequences of his act suggests that he is deserving of censure. We might want to exercise caution in determining who deserves to be placed on a pedestal.


12 thoughts on “Snowden’s Retreat

  1. Excellent points, and thought process. But wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg also accused of “treason” leaking valuable information that would help the enemy? I’m not sure that one must have pristine motives in order to do good. Example? Wealthy benefactors who put their name on the new wing of the hospital they contributed to. The greater good outweighs the aggrandized motives of the contributor.

    Just a thought

    • I agree that pristine motives are not required to make a moral statement. But it raises the event above the norm when the motives are pristine. Otherwise, as I said to Z, it seems like a publicity stunt of some sort: trying to draw attention to himself.


      • perhaps, but in these cases, I see a small price paid for a much to an individual for a “greater good” for all. And think of the possible places this could have gone had not Snowden done what he did…

        Have a great Holiday.

  2. Hugh, this is a good blog and you are quite right. The more Snowden acts like a fugitive, the less forceful his case about moral wrongs looks. I would respect him much more if he stood tall, stood trial — in part because it probably would expose even more of those moral wrongs that seem to pervade the intelligence community and also because, as you said, it would show he really is willing to risk severe penalty to prove his point. That would put him in MLK, Mandela, Bradley Manning company. Granted, he is probably going to be in for some pretty unfriendly “debriefing” no matter what country he lands in (probably already some of that in Russia) but it is not the same as putting his whistleblowing and moral arguments to the test in an American court.

    i would even respect him at a high level if, while in Hong Kong, he had come back but used his time there to negotiate a surrender that would guarantee a criminal trial in a public court, not military/terrorist-type trial. A tribunal-type thing would be wrong. But a true believer in civil disobedience should be willing to stand trial in open court.

    Barney, a quick note: I don’t think treason is the reason Hugh or I are losing faith in Snowden. Ellsberg and Manning both were accused of treason, both were formally charged with it. But they were both willing to take the risk of trial and imprisonment, sacrificing themselves, if you will, for a greater good. Snowden at first seemed to be doing the same. Now, he doesn’t.

  3. Stories like this always make me wonder what i would do/have done if it were me. At times in Latin America I witness things or am told things and slowly a picture comes together and I gasp when stories overlap and suddenly i see a larger picture…

    for the past 15 or so months, i’ve been observing/hearing snippets/witnessing slices of what are surely borderline scams in real estate and legal services… where highly-respected people are playing roles while more naive victims seem to arrive weekly with rose-colored glasses and are wanting to buy into their little slice of the pie. where do i step in and speak up? how do i step in and speak up? am i willing to trade the life i have made in order to stand up against some very wrong things that are happening? if i speak up will i offend the wrong person and put my personal safety at risk? if i don’t speak up and another person loses life savings, how can i smile in my quiet slice of the world and pretend all is right? it appears that the ‘higher ups’ have been notified, and they reply with a shrug and apathy…or things are settled out of court, and the Joe Public rarely hears the horror stories.

    because of that, i identify with snowden.. the more one learns the larger the web and how does one stop the merry go round when it appears no one in authority is willing to take charge and stop these runaway trains?

    • identify with him to an extent. I just wish he were willing to “face the music.” Otherwise it just seems a bit like a grab at headlines.


      • When I look inward I am willing to face the music and state that wrong is wrong. Snowden probably did a lot of thought before making his decision, though he is probably now realizing he should have had even-more advanced thoughts… I don’t see the television or lots of headlines, but I’m sure it’s still causing quite the stir.

      • Oh yes. He has caused quite a stir. It’s ironic that people seem to be more worked up about his “indiscretions” than the drones that are killing folks!


  4. Brother Hugh–the brief break must have done you good! Lovely insightful and nuanced polemic the threads of which probably never occur to most observers of the news…so thanks for jumping back on board.

    Finished not too long ago PARTING THE WATERS (an exquisite read of the King years) and your offering reminds me of how absolutely central the acceptance of consequences was in the minds and hearts of those folks so centrally involved in that movement.

    Getting on those busses, setting at those lunch counters–not a mystery as to what was going to happen. You invite me to think what differences might have been harvested had King spoken eloquently at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and then high tailed it out of the country!

    Letters from Cancun has a different ring to it, than Letters from the Birmingham jail.


  5. Thought some more about this on my morning walk. The one thing I do not want to have happen is that the whole thing becomes about Snowden and not about the issues he raised. There are major issues — probably constitutional violations — raised by the whole surveillance operation. Whatever we think of, or becomes of Snowden, the allegations are extremely serious, the surveillance behavior extremely dangerous.

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