Professionalism/Edward Snowden and the NSA

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Edward Snowden

In June 2013, Edward Snowden leaked top secret NSA documents to the media, revealing the existence of numerous global surveillance programs to the public, 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. Edward Snowden did not follow a typical path to government employment as a high-level technical expert. In 2004, Snowden enlisted in the US Army Reserve as a special forces candidate, wishing to fight in the Iraq War to "help free people from oppression." [1] He was discharged after four months of training due to injuring both legs in a training accident [2] and worked briefly as a security specialist in Maryland. In 2006, Snowden attended a career fair where he was offered a position at the CIA. [3] Despite no formal training, Snowden had very little trouble advancing through the ranks. He had a natural talent with computers, referring to himself as a "computer wizard" [4] and was quickly admitted for training in a CIA program for technology specialists. [3] At this time, Snowden was a strong supporter of the government, reportedly saying that anyone who leaks secret documents should be “shot in the balls.” [5]

However, Snowden’s outlook changed with experience. In 2007, the CIA stationed Snowden in Geneva with diplomatic cover. [6] In this position, Snowden maintained computer network security as the "top technical and cybersecurity expert" in the country and worked closely with CIA operatives. [1] During his time in Geneva, Snowden had experiences with CIA operations that caused him to begin questioning the government's methods. [7] Specific examples of CIA abuse of power mentioned by Snowden have been disputed as infeasible. [8]

It is believed that Snowden began collecting top secret documents with the intent to leak around this time. By 2008, Snowden had enough documents to form a substantial leak, but held off due to hopes that President Obama would institute security reforms. [9] In 2009, Snowden quit work with the CIA and began work at Dell as a NSA sub-contractee, managing computer systems for multiple government agencies. [1] During this time, Snowden collected over 50,000 classified documents, but was still uncertain if leaking was the right thing to do.

The turning point for Snowden came on March 15, 2013, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied under oath to Congress about information collected by the NSA on American citizens.[10] Three days later, Snowden quit his job as lead technologist for the NSA's information-sharing office in Hawaii to work at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. According to Snowden, this choice was driven by an intention to more effectively gather data on the NSA's worldwide surveillance activity [11] and meant turning down a lucrative position at the NSA's Tailored Access Operations. [12] Snowden made digital copies of upwards of 1.5 million documents during this time, turning them over to journalists after fleeing to Hong Kong. After a brief stay there, Snowden went to Russia, where he now resides under temporary asylum. [5]

The Leak[edit]

Speaking out against one’s superiors is a difficult decision. In Edward Snowden’s case, the outcome of blowing the whistle was unpredictable. Rather than dealing with a clear, quantifiable physical risk, Snowden was grappling with a complex moral issue. The effect on society from leaking classified information was not obvious. Snowden 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. As late as 2007, Snowden was an ardent supporter of security and the right to secrecy of the government. 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 is to help society, it can also be argued that Snowden was simply preventing the NSA from circumventing its own goal. Snowden’s willingness to leak the documents despite his prior beliefs lends support to his decision [1].

Snowden's first leak led to the USA Freedom Act of 2015.[13] This put an end to the collection of phone records and metadata but left Prism and XKEYSCORE untouched. [14] Snowden's leaks caused public distrust in the NSA and federal government. Snowden justifies his actions by saying he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. He felt it was unjust that "even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded."[14]


PRISM, one of the revealed NSA programs

On June 6, 2013, Snowden leaked his first document about the NSA monitoring U.S. telephone metadata. A day later, June 7,2013, Snowden leaked an NSA powerpoint about Prism.[15] Prism is an NSA surveillance program that takes data directly from the servers of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and six other large tech companies.[15] The NSA claims to have direct access to these servers while the companies involved refute that claim. A slide shows that data from Microsoft has been collected since 2007. According to Snowden, Prism "is the biggest single contributor to its intelligence reports." [16]


XKEYSCORE is the NSA’s largest surveillance program. XKEYSCORE is an expansion of the U.S. interception stations to the Internet. The NSA has tapped into the fiber optic cables that make up the Internet to collect data such as searches, emails, user keystrokes, usernames, and passwords. [17] This allows the NSA to receive data from users worldwide. The ability to track keystrokes gives the NSA access to anything with a username password combination. Large amounts of U.S. citizen data are collected in their searches, giving the NSA unauthorized access to our devices. Even though NSA employees are trained to avoid U.S. citizen data in their searches, experts believe that isn’t very effective. [17] With all of that searchable data, the NSA can use XKEYSCORE as its personal form of Google. The NSA is able to search the data based off of location, keywords in the user’s search or messages, and individual users. Snowden said that he could "wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge to even the president, if [he] had a personal email.” [17]

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. Interviews with Snowden suggest that he made a decision that agreed both with his morals and that most closely matched those of society. 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 but potentially negatively impacted U.S. national security. [18]

Snowden's Flight[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.”[19] 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.[20] 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...'?"[21] 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,[22] 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 in the Modern Day[edit]

Edward Snowden is currently living in Russia on temporary asylum. According to the Guardian, "the former NSA contractor has not been granted political asylum, which would have allowed him to stay in Russia permanently. However, Kucherena [Snowden's Lawyer] said Snowden would be able to extend his residency permit for a further three years when it runs out and after five years would be eligible to apply for Russian citizenship." [23] Russia’s compliance in harboring Snowden has strained US-Russian relationships. Russia's actions were in direct defiance of the White House, causing embarrassment for the United States. [24] In response to Russia's decision, US Justice Department spokesman, Peter Carr, stated, "It remains our position that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the charges filed against him...If he does, he will be accorded full due process and protections" [25]

In an interview with PEN America in 2015, Snowden explained, "People say I live in Russia, but that's actually a little bit of a misunderstanding. I live on the Internet, and that’s where I spend all of my time.” [26]

Ever since the leak, Snowden has become an outspoken digital citizen. Snowden is very active on Twitter, chiming in on issues related to digital privacy, mass surveillance, whistleblowing, and oversteps of government. [27]. Snowden has taken a strong stance against the FBI in the San Bernardino encryption debate. Snowden believes the FBI is acting unconstitutionally and against the interests of Americans: “Unbelievable: FBI sneaks radical expansion of power through courts, avoiding public debate… remember when the @FBI was concerned about compliance with court orders?”[27]. Snowden has also taken interest in the Panama Papers leak, tweeting: “The #PanamaPapers led to raids, resignations, and regulations. Yet the source enjoys no legal protection. A whistle poisoned by law.”[27] Snowden expresses his concern over politicians involved in the scandal: “Resignation of Iceland's PM may explain why the UK PM is so insistent public has no right to know a PM's "private" finances. #PanamaPapers.” He takes aim at the James Cameron, “UK Twitter right now: "Let's hope Cameron resigns." With respect, hope is not a strategy. #PanamaPapers.”[27]

Snowden operates a non-profit organization, called Freedom of the Press. This organization is “dedicated to helping support and defend public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government.” [28].

Snowden also does interviews with major news agencies, such as the BBC, the Guardian, and NBC. In an interview with the Guardian, Snowden says, “If I end up in chains in Guantánamo I can live with that.”[29]. Snowden explained to the BBC in 2015 that “Smartphones can be taken over” [30]. In a 2014 interview with NBC, Snowden emphasizes that while he condemns mass surveillance, stating, “I take the threat of terrorism seriously”. [31]

Last Week Tonight host, John Oliver, did an interview with Snowden in Moscow in 2015 that garnered much attention.[32] In the upcoming film, Snowden, Jospeh Gordan Levitt is playing the role of Edward Snowden.[33]


  1. a b c d Greenwald, Glen (June 2013). Edward Snowden: the Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations.
  2. Gaskell, Stephanie (June 10, 2013). "Records show Army discharged Edward Snowden after five months". Politico. 
  3. a b Bamford, James (August 13, 2014). "Edward Snowden: The untold story of the most wanted man in the world". Wired. 
  4. Broder, John M.; Scott, Shane (June 15, 2013). "For Snowden, a Life of Ambition, Despite the Drifting". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 15, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  5. a b Harding, Luke (January 2014). How Edward Snowden Went From Loyal NSA Contractor to Whistleblower. Retrieved from
  6. Memmott, Mark (June 10, 2013). "Who Is Edward Snowden, The Self-Styled NSA Leaker?". NPR. 
  7. Bütikofer, Christian (June 10, 2013). "Wie die CIA sich in Genf Bankdaten beschaffte [How the CIA acquired bank data in Geneva]" (in German). Handelszeitung (Zürich). 
  8. Miles, Tom (June 16, 2013). "Swiss president would back criminal probe against NSA leaker". Reuters. 
  9. Burrough, Bryan; Ellison, Sarah; Andrews, Suzanna (April 23, 2014). "The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light". Retrieved April 29, 2016. 
  10. "Transcript: ARD interview with Edward Snowden". The Courage Foundation. January 27, 2014. 
  11. Lam, Lana (June 13, 2013). "Whistle-blower Edward Snowden talks to South China Morning Post". South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  12. Greenberg, Andy (June 18, 2013). "NSA Implementing 'Two-Person' Rule To Stop The Next Edward Snowden". Forbes (New York). Retrieved April 11, 2015. 
  13. Peralta, E. (2015, November 29). NSA Ends Sept. 11-Era Surveillance Program.
  14. a b Diamond, J. (2015, September 7). Senate passes NSA reform measure.
  15. a b Szoldra, P. (2014, June 07). SNOWDEN: Here's Everything We've Learned In One Year Of Unprecedented Top-Secret Leaks. Retrieved May 08, 2016, from
  16. MacAskill, E., & Dance, G. (2013, November 01). NSA files decoded: Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations explained Retrieved May 08, 2016, from
  17. a b c Marquis-Boire, M., Greenwald, G., & Lee, M. (2015, July 1). XKEYSCORE: NSA's Google for the World's Private Communications.
  18. Meek, J. G., Martinez, L., & Mallin, A. (2014, January 29). Intel Heads: Edward Snowden Did 'Profound Damage' to U.S. Security. Retrieved May 08, 2016, from
  19. Logiurato, Brett (August 2013). Chuck Schumer is Furious at Vladimir Putin for 'Stabbing Us In The Back' Over 'Coward' Edward Snowden.
  20. Ellsberg, Daniel (July 2013). Snowden Made the Right Call When He Fled the U.S.
  21. Gerstein, Josh (April 2014). Hillary Clinton Faults Edward Snowden for Fleeing.
  22. Knowlton, Brian (November 2013). Clemency for Snowden? U.S. Officials Say No.
  23. Luhn, Alec Edward Snowden given permission to stay in Russia for three more years (2014)
  24. Gorst, Isabel (August 2014). Russia gives Edward Snowden asylum for three more years.
  25. Peter Carr, qtd. by LA Times (August 2014). Russia gives Edward Snowden asylum for three more years.
  26. Edward Snowden via Skype at PEN America Forum (2015)
  27. a b c d Edward Snowden's Twitter.
  28. Freedom of the Press About Section 2016
  29. Edward Snowden qtd, by The Guardian (2014).
  30. Snowden, qtd. by BBC (2015)
  31. Edward Snowden, qtd. by NBC (2014)
  32. John Oliver on Last Week Tonight (2015)
  33. Galloway, Stephen Oliver Stone Reveals Clandestine Meetings With Edward Snowden, NSA Worries (2016).