Professionalism/Edward Snowden and the NSA

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Edward Snowden

In June 2013, Edward Snowden leaked top secret NSA documents uncovering the existence of numerous global surveillance programs, including Boundless Informant, Prism, and XKeyScore. His leaks have been described as the most significant in U.S. history.

Snowden’s decision was very calculated, and his background and motivations are important in understanding his decision. Snowden was previously a strong supporter of the government and reportedly said that anyone who leaks secret documents should be “shot in the balls.” [1]

However, Snowden’s outlook changed with experience. Snowden worked for the CIA in Geneva in 2007, and his experiences there let him to begin seriously questioning the rightness of what he saw. In March 2013, Snowden took a pay cut and moved to Booz Allen Hamilton under a contract with the NSA for the sole purpose of gathering data on NSA surveillance around the world. From this position, Snowden made digital copies of upwards of 1.5 million documents, and turned them over to journalists after fleeing to Hong Kong. After a brief stay there, Snowden went to Russia, where he now resides under a one year temporary asylum. [2]

Should Snowden have leaked?[edit]

PRISM, one of the revealed NSA programs

Deciding to speak out against one’s superiors is a difficult decision. In many cases, the risk to society or the company’s reputation from not acting is evident, and taking action is the clear right choice. In Edward Snowden’s case, the outcome of leaking was far less certain. Rather than dealing with a clear, quantifiable physical risk, Snowden was grappling with a complex moral issue. The net gain to society from leaking was non-obvious. Snowden, as with many whistleblowers before him, had to use his professional judgement to make a decision on behalf of society without knowing the exact outcome of his actions.

In the Challenger Shuttle explosion, and other similar cases investigated, the goals of the organization – safety and security – were often aligned with those of whistleblowers. Snowden, however, was not hired to carry out moral judgements. The interests of the public did not necessarily line up with those of his organization, and Snowden was forced to choose between the NSA and society. In this situation, professional ethics mandate an individual to align themselves with society. As the long term goals of any government agency are to help society, it can also be argued that Snowden was simply preventing the NSA from circumventing its own goal.

The public response to leaks and whistleblowing has not always agreed with the intentions of the perpetrators. In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified government documents to the press, famously known as the Pentagon Paper. These papers indicated that the government knew of the Vietnam War’s untenability at an early stage. In this case, the public largely applauded Ellsberg’s decision to leak documents[3]. In another leak, Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) sent large numbers of classified government documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks in 2010. This time, the public responded far more negatively, with a majority (52%) of individuals stating that Manning should not have leaked [4].

How should Snowden have evaluated his decision to leak classified documents? Snowden’s first step was to evaluate the strength of his own beliefs. As late as 2007, Snowden was an ardent supporter of security and the right to secrecy of the government. Snowden’s willingness to leak the documents despite his prior beliefs lends support to his decision [5].

Regardless of his decision, Snowden asserted his own moral judgement onto society in leaking. By not taking action, Snowden would have decided that government secrecy trumped the needs for an informed public. Under this framework, Snowden should have chosen whichever option agrees with his morals while matching those of society as closely as possible. Interviews with Snowden suggest that this was the course of action he chose. When Bradley Manning leaked, the public was most upset with his disclosure of documents that put soldiers in danger. Snowden was careful to avoid leaking any information that might lead to U.S. servicemen being injured [5].

In the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, public opinion has been split on whether it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, such judgements on Snowden depend largely on one's trust in the NSA's internal privacy protection mechanisms and one's assessment of the value of Snowden's disclosures to enemies. In making decisions to leak documents, professionals must remember that they are making moral judgements on behalf of the public. They must consider the public’s morals in addition to their own, and realize that not acting is as much a decision as taking action.

Should Snowden have fled?[edit]

Snowden has come under criticism for fleeing the United States after leaking. Senator Chuck Schumer stated, “Others who have practiced civil disobedience in the past have stood up and faced the charges because they strongly believed in what they were doing. Mr. Snowden is a coward who has chosen to run.”[6] In fleeing the US, Snowden put himself beyond the reach of the judicial system and shielded himself from public response. As the saying goes, “Don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time.” However, could Snowden expect a fair trial in the US, and should he be required to face the consequences of his actions if the public supports him?

Daniel Ellsberg has stated his support for Snowden’s decision to flee.[7] Though Ellsberg remained in the US after leaking the Pentagon Papers (and was ultimately acquitted due to prosecutorial misconduct), he believes the political climate has changed, and Snowden would not receive a fair trial today. Ellsberg points out Bradley Manning’s immediate incarceration and deplorable conditions, in addition to the ubiquitousness of the surveillance state. Ellsberg also notes that if Snowden truly helped the US (as he believes), then he shouldn’t have to face extended prison time.

The classified nature of Snowden’s case makes it difficult to compare to similar acts of civil disobedience. Snowden had few avenues to change the laws he thought were unjust. Though many have pointed out existing whistleblower protections, these usually did not apply to Snowden as a government contractor. Furthermore, Snowden’s superiors already approved of these data collection programs in the first place, so whistleblowing wouldn’t bring them any new information. Snowden’s legal advisor Ben Wizner asks, "Was he supposed to call the Senate Intelligence Committee and say, 'I'd like to report to you a program you approved in secret...'?"[8] This leaves breaking the law and appealing to the public as the only viable way for Snowden to have effected change in the NSA.

Snowden would have faced almost certain prison time had he stayed in the US. Bradley Manning received 35 years of confinement for his actions, and the Obama administration has taken a very strong stance against leakers. Perhaps the only option for Snowden to avoid serving time would be for President Obama to grant him clemency. However, the White House has ruled out this route for the foreseeable future,[9] even though the government has admitted mistakes in its handling of the NSA and made changes to its programs. Many believe that granting clemency would be politically disastrous for the Obama Administration, and note that the government’s refusal to commute Snowden’s sentence could just be politically infeasible instead of an act of righteousness.

Secrecy is necessary for any government to function, and Snowden took an oath to uphold the NSA’s secrecy when he joined as a contractor. Part of professionalism is adhering to one’s commitments, and Snowden broke these when he leaked classified information. Snowden believed the extenuating circumstances of his situation justified his decision to leak and flee, and he believes that public support of his decision would vindicate his actions. However, Snowden could not be sure the public reaction to his disclosure before making them. If the public response had been negative, Snowden should have returned to the US to face the consequences of his actions.

There is no easy or correct answer to the question of whether Snowden should have fled the US. In a perfect justice system, citizens must face the consequences of their actions when they break the law. In this case, by making a decision on behalf of society, Snowden should face the consequences that society dictates. However, our justice system is imperfect, and the consequences for Snowden’s actions wouldn’t necessarily represent society’s decisions. The usual routes to changing the system were closed off to Snowden. Ultimately, fleeing is an extraordinary act to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances. Whether these circumstances applied to Snowden remains up for debate.


Snowden strongly believed that the status quo harmed society’s interest in the long run, and by leaking the classified documents, he chose to serve society over his organization. Snowden’s case exemplifies the fact that professionals should strive to align themselves with society’s interests over their companies.

By fleeing to Russia, Snowden escapes the justice system. Professionals should face the consequences of their actions, but in this case, the consequences didn’t necessarily represent society’s opinions. If the consequences for Snowden's actions matched society's opinions, then perhaps he should return to the U.S. and face trial.


  1. Harding, Luke (January 2014). How Edward Snowden Went From Loyal NSA Contractor to Whistleblower. Retrieved from
  2. Harding, Luke (January 2014). How Edward Snowden Went From Loyal NSA Contractor to Whistleblower. Retrieved from
  3. Wells, Tom (2001). Wild man: the life and times of Daniel Ellsberg. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 70–95.ISBN 0-312-17719-4.
  4. Hansen, July 13, 2011. Manning, January 29, 2013, p. 11.
  5. a b Greenwald, Glen (June 2013). Edward Snowden: the Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations.
  6. Logiurato, Brett (August 2013). Chuck Schumer is Furious at Vladimir Putin for 'Stabbing Us In The Back' Over 'Coward' Edward Snowden.
  7. Ellsberg, Daniel (July 2013). Snowden Made the Right Call When He Fled the U.S.
  8. Gerstein, Josh (April 2014). Hillary Clinton Faults Edward Snowden for Fleeing.
  9. Knowlton, Brian (November 2013). Clemency for Snowden? U.S. Officials Say No.