Rahul Sagar Talks Secrets and Leaks, and the NSA

Rahul Sagar, professor of politics at Princeton and author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy took some time to talk about his very timely book and offer his take on the NSA disclosures. Read his thoughts here, and stay tuned tomorrow for another perspective from Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, anthropologist of hacking culture, and digital rights activist.

Professor Sagar, In SECRETS AND LEAKS, a book that really could not have been more well-timed in terms of recent events, you talk about how disclosures like the NSA ones are the only credible means of checking the executive power, and because of this, must be tolerated. This sounds like a pretty reluctant acceptance of whistle-blowing, so I wonder if you could explain more about where your skepticism, as well as your acceptance comes from.  How skeptical are you in regards to Snowden’s actions?

Secrets and Leaks argues that our usual responses to state secrecy are problematic. For nearly a century now, we have responded to the concern that secrecy might be misused by calling for legislative and judicial oversight. But this response shifts rather than resolves the problem, because it is only a matter of time before citizens begin to wonder whether their lawmakers and judges are doing a good job overseeing secrecy.

This is what we’re witnessing today. Even though Congress and the FISA court are overseeing the NSA, citizens are now questioning whether Congress and the FISA court are doing an adequate job. Of course they can’t know the answer to this question, because they can’t peer inside the secret committees in Congress or inside the secret FISA court.

So how then can citizens feel confident that state secrecy is not being misused? I argue that unauthorized disclosures of classified information — in the form of whistleblowing and leaking — provide an answer. Because someone, somewhere could make an unauthorized disclosure, government officials do not feel very confident about being able to conceal wrongdoing. This makes unauthorized disclosures a powerful regulatory weapon.

But this regulatory weapons can backfire. Unauthorized disclosures can actually hurt democracy. I am thinking here of the anonymous disclosures that led to wrongful charges being brought against Wen Ho Lee and Steven Hatfill. These episodes —- merely the tip of the iceberg — caution us against instantly making heroes of whistleblowers and leakers and the press who cover them. We must remember that these actors often have their own interests and agendas at heart. This is the source of my reluctance or cautiousness.

I have mixed feelings about Snowden’s actions. I do see him as having done something brave and idealistic. I appreciate his decision to reveal his identity. Reportedly he did this in order to prevent his colleagues from being harassed and interrogated by investigators. If this was really his motive—and not narcissism—then this is admirable.

At the same time, I am troubled by self-righteousness on the part of those who break the law. To break the law is a very serious thing. It must be done under certain circumstances — when it reveals egregious legal or moral violations — and in certain ways — by carefully revealing only so much as is necessary.

Both Bradley Manning and Snowden have revealed information because they think secrets should not be kept. But this is not a sound basis for breaking the law. A number of administrations, representatives, judges — from all three branches — as well as a majority of citizens support electronic surveillance. Therefore, to simply override what the majority have lawfully chosen with your personal beliefs smacks of moral arrogance.

Therefore, I see Snowden as misguided. He has imposed his own values and ideas on the public—a majority of whom support electronic surveillance, and whose representatives have repeatedly endorsed the NSA’s programs. This is all the more true with respect to Snowden’s disclosures concerning foreign (rather than domestic) surveillance.

Snowden’s rashness also sets a very bad precedent. If Snowden is allowed to break the law, then shouldn’t others be? What is to stop a fiscal hawk in the Defense Department from following Snowden’s example and revealing what he considers ‘wasteful spending’ on nuclear weapons research? This sort of behavior can seriously undermine the effectiveness of our national security apparatus.


This post is part of a series, explore additional posts hereGabriella Coleman, Author of <i>Coding Freedom</i> on the NSA Leaks >>

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  1. [...] Rahul Sagar, author of the forthcoming Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, offered his thoughts on Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the benefit and dangers of whistleblowing. Today, Gabriella [...]

  2. [...] issues surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks. You can read professor Sagar’s thoughts here and Professor Coleman’s response [...]