David Brooks recently wrote a very insightful column, entitled “The Solitary Leaker,” about Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen systems administrator who released to a blogger for The Guardian thousands of classified documents relating to two top secret NSA programs. Brooks portrays Snowden as “thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs,” but also as someone who “appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living in the fizzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.” Brooks characterizes Snowden as having a libertarian bent, suspicious of authority and assuming that “individual preference should be supreme.”
Brooks acknowledges that the procedures Snowden unveiled could “lend themselves to abuse in the future,” but argues that “Big Brother is not the only danger facing the country. Another is…the rise of people who are so individualistic in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to…look out for the common good.” Brooks’s conclusion: “By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed…the foundation of all cooperative activity,” as well as his friends, his employers, “the privacy of us all,” not to mention the Constitution.
It’s an interesting and challenging analysis, but it is also contains a damaging flaw. Brooks asserts that Snowden had a moral dilemma: “On the one hand, he had information he thought was truly menacing. On the other hand, he made certain commitments as a public servant….” The italics are in the original text and would seem somewhat curiously misplaced. One might think that, given the context, if Brooks were going to emphasize any word in that sentence, it would be “public”—to underscore the significance of Snowden’s commitment as a public servant. But that is exactly what Snowden was not.
He was an employee of a private company, Booz Allen Hamilton, which had hired him, a 29 year-old high school and community college drop-out, and agreed to pay him $122,000 a year to be a systems analyst with access to top secret government documents. When Booz Allen ultimately fired him, it was not for violating the law, it was for “violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.” (Aside: The Huffington Post story that quoted Booz Allen’s official statement was headlined: “Edward Snowden Fired by Booz Allen; Whistleblower Made Only $122,000.” Only $122,00? Did Ariana Huffington write this headline herself?)
Firm code. Firm policy. $122,000. Snowden was fired not for violating a public trust but for not being a company man. Snowden was anything but a public servant. He was a private employee, being paid a very good salary by an employer whose goal is to make a profit. For Booz Allen, government security isn’t a mission; it’s a business. The confidentiality of the documents being processed by Booz Allen is to be preserved for the same reason that a food company tries to preserve the wholesomeness of its product. Doing anything else is bad for business, but if you can cut a corner here and there to increase profits, why not? Indeed, as a profit-making enterprise, you should.
But once you start treating secret documents as inventory, the nature of your relationship to the secrets changes. They become a commodity—something to be processed, rather than something to be preserved. This has got to affect any employee’s feeling about the work he is doing, but, in Snowden’s case, the effect was particularly pernicious because—and this, I admit, is largely speculation—Snowden had a predisposition to view the government with suspicion, if not outright disdain.
Why do I say this? Although we don’t know much about him, he is reported (by The Washington Post and The Guardian) to have said things like: “I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions” and U.S. Intelligence Agencies “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information” and “I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things [surveillance on its citizens]… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
These are the statements of a man who truly believes he is under siege by Big Brother. And then there’s this: it appears that Snowden made political contributions (at least $250) to the presidential campaign of Ron Paul. While $250 doesn’t put Snowden in the company of Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, following the principle that animated the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United—that money is speech, we should assume that Snowden’s campaign contributions to Ron Paul tell us that Snowden has more than a little sympathy for the views of the man whose greatest hits (drawn from “Ron Paul Quotes” on RunRonPaul.com, now called The Liberty Crier or from RonPaul.com ) include pronouncements like these:
• “When one gets in bed with government, one must expect the diseases it spreads.”
• “Our country’s founders cherished liberty, not democracy.”
• “In a free society, the government’s job is simply to protect liberty and let the people do the rest.”
• “We need to take away the government’s money power.”
• “In the American political lexicon, ‘change’ always means more of the same: more government, more looting of Americans, more inflation, more police-state measures, more unnecessary war, and more centralization of power.”
These are the views of a man who sees himself in direct opposition to the government, who views the government as an entity separate and apart from the people—in a way, as the enemy of the people, and it is hard not to believe that, given Snowden’s donations to Ron Paul’s campaigns, these are views for which Snowden has more than a little sympathy.
When you entrust state secrets to someone with this kind of oppositional mindset, you have a very dangerous situation. Snowden merely sees himself as a good soldier in the war against Big Brother, fighting back with the weapons at his disposal—the inventory of classified information he figuratively took off the shelves at Booz Allen. We, however, are not obliged to agree with his self-assessment because, contrary to what some, possibly including Snowden, may believe, this is still a free country.