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Is Edward Snowden a civil disobedient?

By Kimberley Brownlee

Since he exposed himself in June 2013 as the source of the NSA leaks to the Guardian and Washington Post, former CIA analyst Edward Snowden has been called many things including a hero, a traitor, a whistleblower, and a civil disobedient. The last of these labels tracks a much-debated philosophical notion and a practice made famous by Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and others. Paradigmatically, civil disobedience is a constrained, conscientious, and communicative breach of law that aims to raise awareness about a cause and bring about lasting changes in law and policy. Not all civil disobedients champion worthy causes. But, their self-restrained willingness to stand up for what they believe despite the personal risk means that their disobedience should be taken seriously and tolerated if possible. Now, is Edward Snowden a civil disobedient? And if he is, how should society and the law treat him?

iStock_000017328877XSmallIn his favour, Snowden willingly exposed himself to considerable personal risk by leaking information about the NSA programs Prism, Boundless Informant, and XKeyscore, which collect and analyse massive amounts of personal data on Americans and foreigners. Moreover, Snowden acted non-evasively by revealing himself as the source of the leaks. Finally, by his own account, he acted with the aim, and he certainly achieved the effect, of initiating a public debate about the legitimacy of NSA and GCHQ activities.

But are Snowden’s leaks sufficiently constrained to warrant the label ‘civil disobedience’? His acts were neither violent nor coercive in any straightforward sense, but they’ve had repercussions for his society and the global community. Just how serious are those repercussions? Some US officials, such as NSA Director Keith Alexander, say Snowden’s disclosures have done irreversible and significant damage to the United States and its allies (whose citizens are, of course, among those under surveillance). But other US officials, such as newly appointed National Security Advisor Susan Rice, say the diplomatic consequences at least are not that significant. Given US officials’ political interests in keeping these programs secret, their word isn’t the best gauge of the seriousness of Snowden’s acts. It’s worth remembering that similar complaints about seriousness were made against civil rights activists in the 1960’s. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated then that “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” In short, the responsibility for questionable, rights-intruding programs that have little judicial or legislative oversight lies with those who implement them, not with those who seek to expose them for public debate.

Other supposed points against Snowden’s credentials as a civil disobedient are, first, that his flight from the United States to Hong Kong in May and his flight to Russia in July in pursuit of temporary asylum seem inconsistent with a civil disobedient’s willingness to accept the personal risks of dissent. Second, as pointed out by the US government, there seems to be an inconsistency between Snowden’s declared commitment to transparency and his choices of Hong Kong and Russia as places of refuge.

These criticisms have bite if we embrace a narrow account of civil disobedience such as John Rawls’s, which says that civil disobedients must be willing to accept not only the risk of punishment, but punishment itself to show that they have a broad fidelity to the legal system and are unlike ordinary offenders. By evading US authorities, Snowden has shown that he’s unwilling to do this. But Rawls’s narrow view of civil disobedience can be challenged. The willingness to accept punishment often doesn’t reflect fidelity to a legal system. It reflects instead a choice of strategy since punishment can bring attention to both a cause and its champions. Moreover, Snowden hasn’t had much choice about his protectors. He’s reportedly applied to 27 countries for asylum without success and he faces serious charges in the United States, so his conscientious commitment to transparency isn’t necessarily in doubt. But now that he has successfully influenced the public perception of his acts and has limited the United States’s options in how it treats him, he’d do well to return to face the criminal justice music despite the personal costs it’ll bring. Doing so would confirm that his acts are civilly disobedient.

Facing the music may not be as jarring as Snowden expects because, although many judges and juries view civil disobedience with scepticism, not all do. Some recognise that civil disobedience is a vital practice in a democracy. It can rectify deficits in democratic debate, can jolt us out of our complacent assumptions, and can bring about much needed moral revolutions. Many judges praise the character of the civil disobedients they see and do what they can to soften the blow of the law. May it be so for Edward Snowden.  ­

Kimberley Brownlee is an Associate Professor of Legal and Moral Philosophy at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (OUP, 2012), which she has discussed in interviews with 3:am Magazine and New Books in Philosophy. She is currently working on a book provisionally titled No Entry: The Evils of Social Deprivation and the Ethics of Sociability.

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Recent Comments

  1. meta

    Good write up. IMO, I think he’s a civil disobedient. I really don’t think he should get in a lot of trouble. Maybe 2-3 years in jail max. Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s dead in 2-3 years though.

  2. Tom

    First, you failed to mention Henry David Thoreau as a precursor of civil disobedience, a large oversight since his acts of civil disobedience, and his writings, provided much of the inspiration of those you did mention. Second, we cannot believe anything that the government tells us, because it has lied to us continually for as long as I have been alive (I’m 68). Moreover, elected government officials often do not know what their agencies are doing because the agencies lie to the officials. I know this for a fact, because the Customs and Border Patrol severely violated my civil rights and almost caused me to be incarcerated in a foreign country by their actions. Fortunately, the foreign government was a lot smarter than the CBP agents and figured out what was going on. When I complained to my senators, they initiated an investigation. However, they were lied to by people from the bottom to the top of the CBP organization. When I submitted the official documents from the foreign government’s investigation of what happened, which report substantiated my complaint and report, the senators ignored it, preferring to accept the lies from CBP, even though the CBP letters contradicted each other. My state representative couldn’t even be bothered to respond to my complaint. So, we have lies from the agencies and agents, and elected officials who are only interested in retaining their comfy sinecures. I am extremely happy that Edward Snowden was a agent who had sufficient ethical and moral courage to make the decision he did, and take the action he did. If more agents had his qualities, we would have a much better nation with less corruption. We need more civil disobedience, worldwide. There is no practical reason for Snowden to return to be punished for doing the right thing, by a corrupt government. You would not ask a Chinese dissident to return to China to face prosecution there. And don’t give us a statement about how bad China is. I lived there for years. It is not at all what the U.S. and its allies (including the Western media) say it is. I’ve also lived in Hong Kong. It is, as Snowden said, a bulwark of independent thinking and living, and it maintains its autonomy as a Special Administrative Area in China. I’m sure that Snowden’s drives were encrypted, and he showed no signs of having been tortured, so I do not believe that the big, bad Chinese or Russians got his data, despite the theatrical hand-wringing from Western media and government talking heads.

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