Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) employee who released many of the spy agency’s secrets, has finally thrown his lot in with Russia, at least for a while. President Vladimir Putin has given Mr. Snowden a one-year asylum. This may help cool off a hot debate for now over whether his actions make him a paragon of virtue or a pariah who has aided terrorists.
A majority of Americans disagree with Snowden’s actions or motives, according to polls. Others claim he is a noble whistle-blower who exposed government data-mining of private communications. Or, more generally, he put liberty and privacy ahead of rights-impinging security.
A few facts are clear:
Everyday Americans and most of Congress did not know the extent of the NSA snooping before Snowden’s leaks. Yet Congress, two presidents, and the judiciary – as the people’s representatives – have long given official approval to this NSA snooping. And leading lawmakers of both parties say the leaks could weaken America’s defense against terrorists.
Snowden said he acted to protect “Internet freedom and basic liberties of people around the world.” But if he had acted as a true whistle-blower, he would have first used two legal channels available to him to make a protest: the NSA inspector general or members of the congressional intelligence committees. He didn’t. Instead, after the initial leak, he fled both the United States and its espionage laws. He fears years in prison more than standing up for his values in court.
Now with Snowden in self-exile for a year or more, Americans need to sort out the apparent conflict of values in his actions. Former NSA chief Michael Hayden says Snowden “will likely prove to be the most costly leaker of American secrets in the history of the Republic.” Snowden says the NSA is jeopardizing liberty everywhere and that his actions help not only Americans but the world.
The House voted last month on a bill to rein in NSA practices. But the measure narrowly failed. And the Obama administration keeps trying to bring Snowden back for trial even as it pressures Russia to stop protecting him. Yet the larger debate is how to resolve a clash of two universal values – a society’s use of laws to protect itself and an individual’s freedom of expression, especially in exposing the potential harm of those laws to basic rights.
In a democracy, that conflict can be resolved in either the legislature or the courts, a process that Snowden doesn’t seem to trust right now. He is correct in one sense: Virtue lies first in the individual. He stood up for an important value, liberty. But his action in fleeing hints at a lack of principle in backing up that virtue. And he is hardly qualified to assess whether ending the NSA practices will put the US in jeopardy. For that, he would need to understand the purpose of other values besides liberty.
People obviously differ in their personal preferences for order and individual rights. The greater virtue lies in resolving those differences. Often, when the elected branches fail in that task, it is left to judges.
As former Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in a 2010 speech: “The Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well. These paired desires of ours can clash, and when they do a court is forced to choose between them, between one constitutional good and another one.”
Snowden tried to resolve this clash on his own. But the greater virtue, at least in a democracy, lies in a shared responsibility for creating a society that is both free and safe. Justice Souter says there is a longing “for the stability of something unchangeable in human institutions.” That’s not easy to achieve. It requires individuals to be more patient and prudent, weighing their own heartfelt values against those of others.