There Are Leaks, and There Are Other Leaks

Josh Marshall has a long and thoughtful post up about security leaks and leakers and what to do about them. In a nutshell, he does not condone leaks for the sake of leaks, or making sensitive information public just because one can. Such an act must be predicated on a belief that the entire U.S. foreign policy apparatus is thoroughly evil and must be destroyed. On the other hand, if the leak exposes some particular course of wrongdoing, to force the government to change or abandon a specific policy, that’s an entirely different matter.

Diplomats and the military both require a certain amount of secrecy to function. It’s the nature of the beasts. Anyone demanding absolute transparency where national security and foreign affairs are concerned is not being rational. Someone sworn into that secrecy ought to think long and hard about breaking his oath. It should be a gut-wrenching decision undertaken only for the best reasons. Think Brutus in Julius CaesarNot that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Not that betraying Caesar was necessarily the right thing, but you get the drift.

Josh Marshall writes,

The Snowden case is less clear to me. … the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy. The best critique of my whole position that I can think of is that I think debating the way we balance privacy and security is a good thing and I’m saying I’m against what is arguably the best way to trigger one of those debates.

But it’s more than that. Snowden is doing more than triggering a debate. I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage – choose your verb – the US intelligence apparatus and policieis he opposes. The fact that what he’s doing is against the law speaks for itself. I don’t think anyone doubts that narrow point. But he’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me that’s a betrayal. I think it’s easy to exaggerate how much damage these disclosures cause. But I don’t buy that there are no consequences. And it goes to the point I was making in an earlier post. Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically – for better or worse – to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?

It’s been a great many years since I read Abe Fortas’s Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience, but as I remember one of his points is that if you’re going to break a law even for a righteous reason, you should be willing to take the punishment. It has to be that important to you, that you’re willing to go to jail for it. It has to be that important to the next person who considers breaking a law. This is a serious matter. Motivations must be selfless. If people think they’re going to be pardoned and lauded as heroes for an act of civil disobedience, it’s no longer a selfless act. The decision becomes too easy. It shouldn’t be easy. I’m not saying it’s always wrong; sometimes it’s right. But it shouldn’t be easy.