I offered this first as a comment to a Spiegel Online article. Here it is with slight modifications to support its stand-alone status here.
Edward Snowden, of Verizon metadata and PRISM outing fame, thinks of himself as a whistleblower, and so do many who agree with him that the US’ PRISM program and its program for collecting metadata from cellphone providers are terribly wrong programs.
I agree that the programs are anathema to individual liberty. However, the programs are legal under US law. The only question here is whether the programs’ limits and checks are being honored–and that’s a matter of trust, since the programs and its procedures are secret. That secrecy and the need for that blind trust in Government (not just the Obama administration, but any Government) form a large part of my dismay over the programs.
However, the programs’ legality mean Snowden cannot be a whistleblower; he’s simply a man who has illegally revealed classified data to the public.
What about civil disobedience, then? Is he practicing this honorable means of protest of a government behavior to which he objects?
There are many legal avenues of calling legitimate attention to these flawed programs, including, for instance, any of the several formal whistleblower and Inspector General facilities to which he could have taken his case. Given the damage already done by these programs (stipulating arguendo that damage to individual liberty has been done) any additional damage done through the delays of going through these legitimate programs would have been quite trivial. Yet Snowden eschewed these programs and went directly public. From within a foreign country.
Were this an act of civil disobedience, it would have had to satisfy two criteria: he would have had first to exhaust his legal remedies. As I noted, he chose not to do so.
Secondly, he would have to have been willing to face the consequences of his actions. It is, after all, those consequences and their absurdity in the face of the disobedience and the thing over which the disobedience is occurring that give force and credibility to the disobedience. Snowden’s reason for being in Hong Kong, as stated by him, is to avoid facing those consequences.
If Snowden truly believes that what he has done is just, he must return to the US and face the outcomes of his actions in open court. Let him make his case in front of the American people (where he’ll find no small measure of support) and convince our representatives in that court case–the jury of his peers–that his act was justified.
Of course he risks not being supported by our representatives, that jury, as there also are a large number of Americans who disagree with what he has done.
Snowden’s flight and so far refusal to return indicates he’s unwilling to take that risk, that he does not have the courage of his convictions. In that case, Snowden did not commit an act of civil disobedience; he is simply a small man who is placing his ego above justice.