Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Oaths, conscience, and honor

When does something become so unconscionable that it's worth forswearing your oaths? Some say never, absolutely, and would suffer any evil rather than break their word. Others break their principles whenever they are slightly inconvenient.

David Brooks

On one side of the spectrum David Brooks who wrote an op-ed condemning Snowden in the New York Times. Here we see a man with no conscience, laying out the Inner Party dogma of why authority should go unchecked.

The question we have to ask Brooks is whether, for him, any act by authority becomes so egregious that he'd blow the whistle. I hate to bring up Nazis, but it's a great test of character: if you were a German official, and you had the documents about the "Endlösung", would you have leaked them?

Brooks makes statements like "Snowden self-indulgently short-circuited the democratic structures of accountability" that are laughably twisted. Even if you disagree with Snowden's decision to leak, you have to recognize that what short-circuited "democratic accountability" was the secrecy of the program. Sure, the leak might've strengthened terrorists, but by any rational measure, it has increased democratic accountability.

Jacob Appelbaum

On the other extreme, consider famous cyber-activist Jacob Appelbaum. When Ecuador sheltered Julian Assange, Appelbaum came out in support of Ecuador's leader, becoming an apologist for Ecuador's abysmal human rights record. Here are some things Appelbaum has said in praise of Ecuador:

  • "Ecuador is imperfect - Sweden is imperfect - the US and the UK are imperfect. Who took steps today to improve things? Ecuador" - @ioerror
  • "I'm really happy to hear that #Ecuador has re-elected Correa!" - @ioerror
  • "Ecuador is an amazingly interesting place. I'm looking forward to returning" - @ioerror

Here is what human right's groups say about Ecuador:

  • Ecuador drops 15 ranks, to 119 out of 179 in 2013 - Reporters Without Borders
  • Ecuador 118 out of 176  in 2012 - Transparency International
  • "In less than five years since taking office, President Rafael Correa has turned Ecuador into one of the more restrictive countries for freedom of expression in Latin America and taken steps to assault freedom of association" - Freedom House
  • "President Rafael Correa has undercut freedom of the press in Ecuador by subjecting journalists and media figures to public denunciation and retaliatory litigation. Judicial independence continued to suffer in 2012" - Human Rights Watch

This is a problem for many of us. We support Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden because of our principles, yet we reject those like Appelbaum and Assange who appear to have no other principle other than a paranoid hatred of America.

The Declaration of Independence

For those of you haven't read it, what the "Declaration of Independence" says is that it's wrong to start a revolution for "light and transient causes", that it's better to suffer small evils instead. The purpose of the document was to prove that the problem was greater than that, that the evils were heavy, great, long-term. It listed the repeated "injuries and usurpations" of the King that had lead to "absolute tyranny" over the colonies.

Of particular interest is the quote:
"In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

Warrantless surveillance is a great injury. We, the people, have patiently and humbly petitioned for redress on this issue for over a decade. A change in party in both the Legislative and Executive branches has only worsened the injuries and usurpations. The current Executive reneged on his oath to redress the problem. His actions increasingly mark him as a Tyrant.

I point this out because of the way David Brooks' claim that Snowden "betrayed the Constitution", and acted contrary to how the Founders of our country would want. This is clearly not true. Whether Snowden acted wrongly or rightly, he laid out a justification for his actions that went beyond light and transient causes, and justified his actions as being due to repeated injuries and usurpations that were leading to absolute tyranny. Snowden's arguments echo those of our Founders.

Where I stand

Full disclosure:

  1. I've worked with the NSA, because I don't find them inherently evil, though as it appears now, some things they do are wrong.
  2. I would have disclosed the Verizon order, without question, because secret surveillance of all Americans is evil, and all forms of redress had been exhausted.
  3. I would have gone to jail for doing so: I wouldn't break my word lightly, and would pay the consequences.

A common ethical question about time travel is "If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?". I would, but I would also expect to go to jail for murder.

I point this out because I have a conscience, but I have a very low opinion of those who would so lightly break their principles.

With that said, I hope Manning and Snowden are not punished harshly. The press does a poor job holding our government accountable. It seems that leaks/whistleblowers are our last ditch defense against tyranny. While there should always be some punishment (a few years in jail), it should never be to harsh to discourage all leaking.

Where do you stand?

I grew up reading about Germany and how the Third Reich slid into tyranny. As person with a conscience, I'd like to think that I would be one of those who would have fought against it.

As it stands today, our country is mostly free. Yet, in response to terrorism, we've taken a step toward tyranny. I think it's a debate we need to have, though from an Enlightened perspective. Brooks and Appelbaum bookend this debate rather nicely.


Panagiotis Atmatzidis said...

Sorry but the only population who sees Assange as a something "negative" is the USA. If by that measure you mean, that they hate you, then I can inform that the entire planet hates you and you (as a nation) make everything possible in your hand to keep the hatred growing.

That said, you should separate USA citizens form the US government, as Iraqi people from Iraqi gov and so on.

I don't believe that Assange hates the people. I never got that vibe.

Robert Graham said...

The point is that Assange doesn't stand for principle, like a free press, or else he'd be critical of Ecuador. Assange's only principle is to oppose the United States (government, I suppose).

Brock said...

Thank you for your well thought out post.

I have to agree with you on pretty much every point. However, I have to disagree with your conclusion that the whistle blower should be punished. The case you laid out seems like the democratic accountability failed catastrophically and whistle blowing was justified. If the whistle blower was right in releasing the information (the government was acting unlawfully) then the whistle blower should not be punished.

Bruce Schneier had a great NY Times op-ed. Which he says that the government should be investigated first and then only after the dust has settled should he be prosecuted. (I assume that leaves the option to not prosecute open)