Thursday, January 2, 2014

Secrets, Lies and Power

The internet is chattering about the NYTimes call for clemency for Edward Snowden. Conor Friedersdorf pushes back against the push-back.

I trust that, if the national security state were drawing up a classified assassination list of American journalists, even Barro would be amenable to a pardon for any federal employee who violated secrecy laws by leaking its existence to the press. He isn't opposed to forgiveness for any possible leaker–he just doesn't think Snowden in particular is worthy. So it seems to me that he doesn't just overstate the costs of a pardon for Snowden, he also neglects to acknowledge or address the unusually powerful reasons for granting one in this of all cases. When should a leaker of government secrets be forgiven rather than jailed? Here are some possible standards:
  • When the leak reveals lawbreaking by the U.S. government.
  • When the leak reveals behavior deemed unconstitutional by multiple federal judges.
  • When a presidential panel that reviews the leaked information recommends significant reforms.
  • When the leak inspires multiple pieces of reform legislation in Congress.
  • When the leak reveals that a high-ranking national security official perjured himself before Congress.
  • When the leak causes multiple members of Congress to express alarm at policies being carried out without their knowledge. 
The Snowden leak meets all of those thresholds, among others.
Friedersdorf's case is strong, but this is not a situation which will be decided by the soundness of arguments. This is a case about power. Friedersdorf rightly notes the degree to which government insiders leak top secrets to the press but what he doesn't note is that this kabuki dance of anonymous official revelations of government secrets is a perk of power, an entitlement not accorded to mere contractors like Snowden. Workers in the national security state are like the servants in Downton Abbey---they have access to all the secrets of the house but have no social standing to reveal them without suffering devastating consequences.  

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