Snowden Is Not MLK
There’s a difference between civil disobedience and mere lawbreaking.

Edward Snowden


Daniel Foster

It is a testament both to the complexity of the political and legal questions surrounding the NSA’s PRISM program, and to the mixture of intellectual honesty and political opportunism characterizing those debating them, that one cannot accurately extrapolate from a person’s views on the program his views on Edward Snowden, the low-level government contractor who exposed it.

Speaking broadly, “establishment” Democrats and Republicans alike tend to be apologists for the program, and to think Snowden deserves prosecution for compromising it. By contrast, libertarians left and right tend to be outraged by the program, and think Snowden a hero for showing it the light of day. But you can count me in a third group, those who find PRISM disturbing but aren’t ready to crown Snowden.

To my mind, there is no reason at this point to think of Snowden as a “whistleblower,” as so many are calling him, since whistleblowing means exposing actual malfeasance, not merely the unwisdom of a duly enacted policy. Nor is it clear that his leak of classified information is an act of “civil disobedience,” at least not if that phrase still means what it did when its most consequential practitioner, Martin Luther King Jr., practiced it.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written mostly in the margins of a newspaper, King laid out his four-step process for conducting acts of nonviolent civil disobedience: “collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.”

Did Snowden’s actions meet the first of these criteria? The case that there was racial injustice in Alabama in 1963 was both obvious and overwhelming. King writes that Birmingham was “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” with a long record of legal discrimination and violent intimidation of blacks. By contrast, did the information to which Snowden was privy obviously and overwhelmingly point to injustice? The NSA was using powers granted it by Congress, under the watch of the courts, for the purpose of protecting America. This program may be unwise, it may be dangerous, it may be immoral, and it may yet be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But does the information Snowden had at hand, and disclosed to the press, make that case obviously and overwhelmingly? Is the injustice of the monitoring program so gross that it morally compelled Snowden to break his oaths, and the law, to reveal it?

King’s second step requires “negotiation” with the perpetrators, or at least the enablers, of the injustice in question. In King’s case, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference agreed to put a moratorium on all demonstrations in Birmingham when merchants agreed to take down “humiliating” racial signs from places of business. Before he went to the press, did Snowden first raise his concerns with PRISM to his superiors at Booz Allen Hamilton? Or to officials at the National Security Agency? Or to members of Congress charged with oversight? Or to the courts? Did he work through official channels to have PRISM declassified, even while reserving the right to resort to unofficial channels should this prove impossible?