Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Edward Snowden and the Call for Just Intelligence

Aaron Korthuis


By Aaron Korthuis

February 28, 2014

A version of this article originally appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.

Edward Snowden has caused a lot of angst among the American people and his actions have sparked a debate that has become increasingly acute in our post-9/11 world with the unusual security problems facing the United States. However, this debate is not a new one for liberal democracy: balancing rights, especially those of privacy and security, has long stirred controversy.

Developing a thoughtful response from an intentionally Christian perspective to the questions Snowden presents is very difficult. Our intellectual resources are limited, and the existing moral framework to analyze such actions remains a bit opaque. But the recent revelations from Snowden highlight the need for this serious reflection. Documents he has provided show that the NSA has actively undermined cyber security standards worldwide, tapped Google and Yahoo fiber optic cables between data centers, hacked foreign leaders’ phones, and recorded and stored “metadata” of US citizens from phone and technology companies.

These revelations produced a public and international uproar, as well as concerted efforts on Capitol Hill to rein in the perceived excesses of American intelligence agencies. But what gave rise to this passion? In large part, we can point to the conviction, especially prominent in the United States, that individuals possess an expansive right to privacy. While the constitutional foundations of such a right are shaky, it has become an implicit element of American political philosophy such that conservative libertarians and civil rights activists alike deem privacy to be a basic American right.

Human dignity, and by extension, human rights, play an important role in shaping a Christian political theology and can help Christians understand the moral responsibilities of government. Although the right to privacy might not be a human right (or rather, a natural right) in the modern United States, citizens certainly consider privacy to be what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls a socially conferred right, a right that is further undergirded by natural rights.

But a right to privacy is ambiguous and its scope is hotly contested. Here, an understanding of public justice and Kuyperian sphere sovereignty can help inform the norms governing intelligence work. Sphere sovereignty holds that God has created many different “spheres” of life, such as the state, business, and the family, and each possesses its own mandate to ensure human flourishing. When one sphere encroaches upon the authority given to another, it affects the ability of both the individual and the community to live as God desires. For the work of government intelligence gathering, this suggests that too far an intrusion into other spheres can disrupt human flourishing and in some sense, the created order. The long-reaching tentacles of US intelligence agencies also indicate that the proper order of government under a vision of public justice has been disrupted.

Snowden’s revelations reveal signs of serious breakdown in the normative roles played by our government’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Both the courts and the legislature have failed to provide oversight, ceding power to an executive branch (or more accurately, an intelligence community) that, in the absence of clear guidelines or supervision, has vigorously sought to attain its goals.

One might forgive the NSA for its perceived overreaches. The nature of today’s intelligence gathering means that efforts to collect information are decentralized and ubiquitous. For the United States, terrorism is a global threat, spread across many countries with many actors. The NSA has responded with an approach that gathers all possibly meaningful data and then later sorts through it to determine whether it might be helpful in identifying threats to the United States or its allies.

But this approach has raised serious ethical concerns, based on the norms of the socially conferred right to privacy and the normative structure of government with regard to itself and society as a whole. Yet simultaneously, we have to acknowledge that humans have a natural right to security, which means a right to live in an environment of peace, free from pressing concerns about possible bodily harm because of external threats. Further, human flourishing, one of the essential ends of government, requires freedom from external threats, and the state is obligated to respect this right. Taken together, this produces the moral conundrum of security and personal liberties and privacy.

So then, what does a public justice approach propose as a way forward? Public justice and the norms governing spheres suggest that much more oversight—from both Congress and the courts—is required to restore faith in the legitimacy of our intelligence efforts. In this sense, Obama’s preliminary proposals are a step in the right direction. But moving forward will not be easy and the philosophical debate raging in Congress has caused the conversation to all but grind to a halt. Perhaps invoking the common ground of a right to privacy, an idea supported across the political spectrum, can create traction for protecting this right, for defending other spheres from the NSA’s seemingly universal surveillance, and for restoring the proper balance of power in our government.

- Aaron Korthuis works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”