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Edward Snowden is No Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Do the ends justify the means in the case of Edward Snowden disclosing classified NSA secrets to the world? I think not.

Do the ends justify the means in the case of Edward Snowden disclosing classified NSA secrets to the world via the UK’s Guardian newspaper? I think not.

Over the past week, worldwide media offered numerous stories covering various aspects of the NSA Prism program, along with differing views regarding how the Top Secret program became public knowledge. There were details about “bigger, bolder data seizures” as well as how a banned USB thumb drive was used to get the information off of classified computer systems by Edward Snowden. 

If you read these accounts, one thing becomes abundantly clear: There are radically opposing viewpoints about Edward Snowden’s recent actions.  For example:

Was Snowden a whistleblower or double agent?

Is Edward Snowden a traitor?

Is Snowden a hero?

There were even public rallies in Hong Kong in support of Snowden.

Perspectives from Former NSA Employees

New York Magazine ran a piece describing, “What 9 Former NSA Employees Think About Privacy, Secrecy, and Edward Snowden.” I was asked to contribute 100 words on the topic, and here is what I wrote:

NSA employees and contractors are given a rare privilege and unique trust by our nation. Just as everyone in a hospital operating room is trained to know their role to save lives, everyone at NSA is taught the importance of their part in the vital mission.

“Security is our middle name” was our motto. Genuine integrity was paramount.

“No comment” was the answer given to press.  

If anyone had concerns about a policy or procedure, there were always clear, appropriate processes for handling such complaints.

Edward Snowden chose to break his pledge, not follow process, and violate our nation’s trust.

Evidently, my views on Snowden are in the (slight) minority in America. According to The Huffington Post:

“… 38 percent of Americans think that Snowden releasing top-secret information about government surveillance programs to the media was the right thing to do, while 35 percent said it was the wrong thing. Twenty-eight percent said they weren't sure.”

I must say that this poll result surprised me.

Wider Ethical Issues

Even if you agree with Snowden’s arguments regarding Prism’s violation of personal privacy protections, which he described in the UK Guardian interview embedded below, does that make it acceptable for him to release confidential information to the press?


Perhaps you are worried about the USA becoming a “surveillance state” and/or you’re glad that this NSA Prism program has now been made public. You may feel that this topic now needs to be debated openly. Furthermore, even if I partially agree and share some concerns for future monitoring and government intentions, our privacy protections going forward and potential misuse of the information down the road, I still don’t believe that the end result of Snowden’s disclosures justify his illegal actions.

Why? As one anonymous person wrote in response to the New York Magazine article:

“How many Edward Snowden's can we tolerate and remain secure? Would it be okay for every employee that has access to classified information to be given the option to decide what they personally deem inappropriate, copy it and make it available to the global public, which is not limited to Americans or those with good intentions? Can you break your agreement with your employer and be a hero?”

All in the Family

My mother-in-law and I disagree on this topic. As a libertarian champion for smaller government and individual freedoms, she defends Snowden (at least for now until more is known.)  She is angry about what our government is doing, and she thinks NSA has become too powerful and is wrong. We had a polite debate on the topic on Saturday morning.

While I agreed with a few of my articulate mother-in-law’s arguments, I expressed a half dozen or more ways that Snowden might have been a true “whistleblower.” It would have started with following DoD procedures for such things, rather than running to the UK’s press and causing significant damage to our country, our security and U.S. businesses.  

She asked me questions like, “Do I think it would ever be right to go around all of the normal processes and safeguards that are put in place at NSA? Would I ever do the same thing, if I was in his shoes?

I paused, and thought for a minute. My answer would almost always be no. While one never knows for sure how they would act if forced to walk a mile in another’s shoes, I would work through the appropriate DoD controls and procedures 99.99% of the time.

Nevertheless, a rare exception did come to mind. If I was convinced that laws were constantly being broken or, God forbid, crimes against humanity were being performed by management, I would (hopefully) act outside the normal 'whistleblower' process - if that's what it took. In my view, this bar was not reached in the Snowden case, since he was the one who revealed the court decisions authorizing the program with privacy protections in place for content.

For example, I recently read a great biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, who was a law-abiding German most of his life, ended up joining a group trying to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I seriously doubt such a situation would ever come up in America. The vast situational differences between Bonhoeffer and Snowden are too numerous to name. Nevertheless, here are three:

-  The stakes were higher for Bonhoeffer. He opposed Hitler's euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. Snowden’s revelations involve domestic surveillance and an open society in America in 2013.

-  Bonhoeffer gave up his life as the cost for his actions. Snowden will likely benefit financially and in many other ways for his actions.

-   Bonhoeffer came back to Germany when he could have fled World War II. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong.

In conclusion, the implications of this story go well beyond NSA, Snowden, his motivations or what happens to him next. There are ethical questions regarding when it is right to violate policies and procedures at work, break oaths of office or even disregard (numerous) laws put in place to protect us in America.

How are we explaining this to our children?

In a democracy, can anyone decide to break the law without consequence? Is it ok to go around due process and call it whistleblowing (or something else)? Can everyone ignore court decisions?

 Is that the kind of America you want?

Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.