March 1, 2016


Edward Snowden broke the law. He broke the ethical code of his employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He leaked secrets that cost him his personal freedom to assure the freedom of the general public. Were his actions justified? Though Snowden was disloyal to his company, his ultimate duty was to serve the citizens of the United States, which he did successfully by informing on issues of privacy. Accountability is key here. The federal government is accountable to the state government who is accountable to local governments and then the people of the United States. While this concept is not quite so linear in actuality, it is clear to see that citizens rest on the bottom of the breakdown—or perhaps the middle of the web—meaning everyone is accountable to the public in some form or another. Political Scientist Donald F. Kettl brings up an important point, which is Who is to watch the watchers? […] There is no absolute standard for accountability, and a large number of hands tussle over what it ought to look like.”1 While no absolute standard exists, representative democracy does cater to we the people and it would be impossible to make an informed vote if information were being withheld, as in the case of Snowden. Snowden’s actions were completely justified and indeed professionally ethical due to his ultimate goal of serving the public and watching the watchers by keeping the triad of governmental branches in check.

Professors Cox, Buck, and Morgan, in quoting Verne B. Lewis, assert that The ideal of democracy is that the desires of the people, no matter how they are arrived at or how unwise they may be, should control the actions of the government.”2 How can the desires of the people be wholly expressed with the fear of violated privacy? At minute 00:38:09 of the documentary Citizenfour, Snowden covers himself with a blanket to block the view of potentially snooping image-capture devices.3 Journalist Glenn Greenwald then remarks how he has been bitten by the paranoia bug and is disturbed by the capabilities of modern surveillance technologies. In the Hong Kong hotel room, the people being filmed acknowledged that everything said between them would eventually become public record—but what of everyone else? What of protest planners, business leaders, ideological dissenters? Even the kid updating her Instagram in the local coffee shop deserves privacy.

What is truly immoral about the events leading up to the Snowden leaks are the lies that were told on public record. If Snowden did wrong, his actions were a trifle compared to the wrongdoing and corruption within the federal government. At minute mark 00:10:11, NSA Director Keith B. Alexander blatantly lies to congress about spying on telecommunications. When asked, Does the NSA routinely intercept American citizens’ emails, cellphone conversations, Google searches, text messages, Amazon orders, bank records…” Alexander answered No” to every question.4 Again, it is impossible to make an informed decision to vote or deliberate otherwise without being properly informed. Perjury is a basic immoral principle which detracts from one’s ability to assess a situation and act accordingly. Kettl brings up the Rule of Law5 which holds every member of society accountable under a mutually agreed upon code of regulations—this assures that the government does not overpower the people. Through his leaks, Snowden counteracted Alexander’s lie and he did so with a certain modesty that deemed the action both morally permissible and not an act of martyrdom.

Snowden had plenty of options when it came to whistleblowing. He could have chosen the dissension tactics of exit, voice, disloyalty, or a combination thereof. Since he remained an employee of Booz Allen but shared confidential information in a public forum, it is quite obvious that a combination of voice and disloyalty had been achieved, the result of which being leaks.6 He did not take the confidential files and email them out to people or send them to a news outlet or recite them on television or a personal blog. Instead, Snowden responsibly contacted two separate journalists and a trusted colleague to carefully plan out the revealing of the data. He left the discernment of presentation to the journalists while keeping his personal story to a minimum to avoid bias. If there is a respectful way to break the law, he has accomplished it—almost in an honor among thieves fashion. His being a government contractor does not mean he is any less obligated than a public servant to protect the privacy of the public. A counterargument may be that Snowden was unethical because he failed to uphold his company’s code of ethics. Perhaps it is not he who failed the company but rather the company who has failed him. At minute 01:07:53, Snowden explains that normal NSA employees have either TS, SI, TK, or Gamma access to secure documents (or a combination thereof). As a Systems Administrator, he received PRIVAC access, meaning access to any security level no matter the job—this included access to live drone feeds across the globe. How is it at all sensible that a government contractor should have greater access than a government employee? That concept blows the accountability web wide open.

While it is so that Snowden broke the law and the ethical code of Booz Allen, his actions were justified in that they were for the greater good of the American public. He risked his personal freedom to inform the world about the unjust covert actions of the US federal government and, as a result, spurred a global conversation on privacy issues in regards to advancing technology and terrorism. While it is understandable that some government documents must be kept private for the purpose of national security, documents regarding governmental process directly affecting citizens should be open to the public for debate and revision. Bureaucrats, as well as elected officials, are morally fallible. This is why it is imperative that the handful of policymakers, executive actors, and judiciary heads be checked by outside forces—and what better force than a contractor who is being paid and granted express security access to the dirty truth.

Written for Dr. Michele Deegan’s Public Administration at Muhlenberg College.

  1. Kettl, Donald F. Politics of the Administrative Process. 6th ed. Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2015. p. 8.↩︎

  2. Cox, Raymond W., III, Susan J. Buck, and Betty N. Morgan. Public Administration in Theory and Practice. Boston: Longman, 2011.↩︎

  3. Citizenfour. Directed by Laura Poitras. Performed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Praxis Films, 2014. iTunes Movie.↩︎

  4. Citizenfour. Directed by Laura Poitras. Performed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Praxis Films, 2014. iTunes Movie.↩︎

  5. Kettl, Donald F. Politics of the Administrative Process. 6th ed. Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2015. p. 8.↩︎

  6. Hirschman, Albert O. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. p. 50.↩︎


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