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

Declaring Independence?

Stephanie Summers


July 5, 2013

By Stephanie Summers

In recent weeks, the world has been treated to another media frenzy following the leak and “leaker” of classified information. This time, former CIA and major defense contract employee Edward Snowden divulged details of a classified NSA surveillance program called PRISM.

Amid cries of “hero” or “traitor,” charges of espionage and refusals by foreign governments to meet US requests for extradition, this most recent leak of classified information, as well as the largest leak of classified information in US history allegedly perpetrated by Bradley Manning, have generated much speculation about the seemingly growing problem of leaks perpetrated by young adults.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described Snowden’s “lens” as one that “makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme.” He notes that the current situation highlights the reality that our security infrastructure generally worked when people were shaped by “the mediating institutions of civil society.”  In Brooks’ view, Snowden is not shaped by these institutions which foster an understanding of “gently gradated authoritative structures” and is as a result a “solitary leaker”.

How do we reconcile this with statements from Snowden about his own motive?  Over the last few weeks, Snowden has defended his disclosures vociferously, stating “[T]he public needs to know the kinds of things a government does in its name, or the ‘consent of the governed’ is meaningless.” Given his responses to questions posed at the Guardian, Snowden’s rationale is consistent with that of a person who believes he is responsible, not to himself, but to the “public.” 

Yet in spite of his own declarations, Snowden appears to have made his decisions based on an ethic of individual autonomy, where he even allegedly planned his career path in order to gain access to higher levels of information with the ultimate purpose of publically divulging it. In a world where the ultimate good is the preservation of individual autonomy, Snowden is a highly ethical actor.  He believes that governments and their actions are only legitimate through direct authorization of individuals and that his own actions are justified by his personal ethical framework.  In this case, one might even suggest Snowden is an autocrat, a government unto himself, “in which a supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control.” 

This raises the crucial importance of an unexplored question amid this discussion.  Is the existing training for persons authorized to access classified information sufficient to develop an ethical framework larger than one’s own personally defined ethics?  Current training is functional, focusing on what classified information is and how not to divulge it.  This process relies on ongoing exposure to scenario-based training where trainees encounter a set of stories focusing on past leakers and their motives.  In the most typical cases presented, someone is often actively attempting to gain the information, and leakers fall prey either to blackmail or the need to secure financial resources in order to fund a personal liability.  In some high-profile historic cases, the leaker provided an ethical justification, but the training presents most leakers’ motives to be ultimately venal.  Individuals with clearance are asked to maintain vigilance regarding peers who are “loners” and those who may exhibit signs of financial difficulties.   But there is nothing in the existing training that helps shape an ethical framework or advises those holding clearances as to what should be done in a situation where they believe the classifying authority is using classification to violate existing laws.

The process and motives depicted in the current training regimen differ greatly from the motives that appear to have activated Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to go public with classified material.  The current training regimen highlights the role of individual agency only in light of self-interest that results in personal gain; in its current state, it is not designed to develop ethical citizens who share responsibility with government to uphold public justice for a political community.  While the extent of the classification authority belonging to government is up for debate, it is within scope of what is a legitimate government responsibility.  But it is also one that requires the development of training regimens that acknowledge and address the complex ethical questions unique to those being trained for such a purpose, declaring these citizens to be more than just independent, “solitary leakers” in waiting.

-  Stephanie Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice. 

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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.”