More from Rahul Sagar on the NSA Leaks

Last week Rahul Sagar, author of Secrets and Leaks, and Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, began a fascinating debate on the complex moral and political issues surrounding Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks. You can read professor Sagar’s thoughts here and Professor Coleman’s response here.

Today Professor Sagar responds once more to Professor Coleman, discussing the flow of information, the morality of foreign surveillance, and how to prevent the abuse of secrecy.

Rahul Sagar:

As I said, Snowden is brave to have revealed his identity. Professor Coleman is right to say that Snowden has not tried to draw attention himself. I would, however, point out that Snowden’s silence may owe more to Vladimir Putin’s instruction that he not cause trouble if he wants to stay on Russia. Hence, our evaluation of Snowden the person must await further evidence.

I am also not sure that Snowden’s actions are the product of the “contemporary historical moment.” It has become commonplace to describe leaking and whistleblowing as a response to the “excessive” secrecy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. The reality is that these practices have existed throughout American history, and they have consistently attracted controversy. So the fact that Snowden is not alone in making unauthorized disclosures does not answer the moral question of whether and when public employees should disclose classified information.

Professor Coleman praises Snowden’s actions because they “open the spigot so valuable information could flow to a thirsty public who holds the right to know.” This is to take the view that the American people themselves should decide when and how electronic surveillance is conducted. This emphasis on a participatory form of democracy is problematic though. National security requires secrecy. If we publicly rule out certain surveillance methods —for example that the government should not spy on Facebook users — then Al Qaeda will start using this channel. It is because we cannot openly discuss surveillance measure that we delegate the management of national security to our chosen representatives.

How, then, to prevent the abuse of secrecy? One way to do so is to rely on the separation of powers. The other is to rely on our own good sense. We cannot see what the President or the FISA court see, but we can appoint to these offices people whose character and judgment we can trust. Professor Coleman dismisses these constitutional measures too quickly. She takes the view that asking whistleblowers and leakers to respect democratically elected officials subject to checks and balances is to urge “blind respect for dubious laws”. But why should citizens believe that unelected and unaccountable individuals like Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden are better placed to know what’s good for America, and what should be secret? And how can we undo their actions if their disclosures turn out to have been rash?

I believe we should be more circumspect. State secrecy makes it hard to oversee officials, lawmakers, and judges and to bring them to account. This is frustrating, but the answer is not to encourage unauthorized disclosures on the grounds that this quenches the public’s thirst for information. The public may end up swallowing air instead of water. For instance, there might be very good reasons for why the NSA is using the surveillance methods it uses, but these reasons cannot always be shared with the public. One-sided disclosures like those made by Snowden can leave the public with a distorted sense of what the NSA is up to.

This does not mean that whistleblowers and leakers do not play a valuable role. They aid American democracy when they disobey the law in order to expose serious wrongdoing. But Snowden has not met this standard. Even if his initial disclosures about NSA surveillance had merit, his subsequent disclosures about American surveillance of foreign powers are inappropriate. Snowden has defended these disclosures by citing the Nuremberg Principle. But spying on foreign powers is not a crime against humanity. To equate foreign surveillance with Nazi war crimes betrays a lack of judgment. And to argue that foreign surveillance is immoral while taking refuge in a country that is run by a strongman from the former KGB is doubly odd.


  1. […] Gabriella Coleman and Rahul Sagar,  Professor Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, responds to Professor Sagar’s recent post, offering a historical perspective on intelligence agencies and raising the potential for grave […]