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Thoughts on Snowden, Civil Disobedience, and Cowardice

By Taylor Marvin

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NSA leaker Edward Snowden apparently intends to seek refuge in Ecuador, a country, like Snowden benefactors Russia and the PRC, not exactly noted for its free press and civil liberties. As many have noted, there’s a certain irony to Snowden fleeing to countries with much, much worse records of repression and civil surveillance than the United States. At best this is hypocritical, and many allege that Snowden’s desire to evade US justice weakens his credibility as a whistleblower. Like many others, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews went so far as to call Snowden a coward for fleeing punishment, and others claim his flight make him a traitor.

First, I a very skeptical of PRISM, surveillance of routine communications, and the general government culture of secrecy. Moreover, the security bearucracy’s natural tendency is to grow if unchecked. In a perfect world whisleblowing would not be necessary, but we obviously don’t live on that plane of perfect oversight and moderation. That said, I am also wary of endorsing Snowden’s actions. Much like Dan Nexon recently wrote, I believe that security clearances are very serious, and low-level employees should not be able to unilaterally decide what should, and should not, be secret. As Kevin Drum noted, with too many Snowdens it would be impossible to run any intelligence service at all. I also feel that Snowden sacrificed credibility by apparently attempting to avoid having his material thoroughly vetted (though this is notably better than going to WikiLeaks, which has proven itself entirely irresponsible and unable to responsibly release secrets).

That said, it’s perfectly natural for Snowden to try and avoid punishment for his actions. Kevin Drum sees Snowden’s flight as a reasonable desire to avoid punishment for civil disobedience if that punishment is a lifetime in prison. Suffering legal penalties can’t be separated from legitimate civil disobedience — this willingness for self-sacrifice demonstrates commentment and strength of belief, and is an important part of the public performance inherent to civil disobedience. However, Snowden’s actions aren’t civil disobedience per se. It appears that Snowden’s goal was simply making PRISM public; of course, his public announcement and media embrace is self-aggrandizing, but isn’t inherent to his goal. It’s true that Snowden escaping legal consequences will encourage future leakers by suggesting that releasing classified information has no penalty (though it’s also arguable that never being able to return to the country of your birth is a penalty in and of itself). But as Snowden appears to see it, unlike many other civil disobedients there’s no real value in his public martyrdom. As long as the information is made public, suffering extreme legal penalties adds nothing to the discussion. If he can leak classified information and escape US justice so much the better. Without condoning Snowden’s actions, this isn’t cowardice, it’s simple self-preservation.

Update: This originally read “good sense,” which in retrospect doesn’t convey the sentiment I was aiming for. Additionally, while accepting punishment isn’t an integral part of Snowden’s performance, it is true that putting himself in Chinese and Russian custody is a best enormously irresponsible.

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