To a Chair in the Basement

Allow me first to draw your attention to this fine post, with which I largely agree. But then, if I may, I would like to ladle some generous helpings of my own brown gravy complications over top the roast beef of our agreement. So to speak.

This is another way of saying that I agree, as far as it goes. But in real life tangles, it often goes much farther than all that. Let me keep Snowden out of this so that we can just address the ethics of whistleblowing, and not have to deal with the hot politics of this particular situation.

Let us assume a Christian with a top security clearance comes to you, his pastor, for some counsel. He wants to know what the right course of action is, and his interest is genuine. Let us also assume that the malfeasance he is concerned about is real and massive, and that it involves all his known superiors. This means that his only choice is to decide between whistleblowing and not whistleblowing. He either has to say nothing, or say something outside the usual channels. There are at least three sets of complicating factors.

The first is that when the structure of governmental operations is as swollen and complicated and bureaucratic and Byzantine as ours is, it is impossible to avoid illegalities. This is important for those who are worried that the whistleblowing is “illegal.” That is a central part of the point of such structures. It means that if they ever want to get you, they can do so. Not only is whistleblowing illegal, so is not whistleblowing. Suppose, after a battle with his conscience, our friend here decides not to do anything, and a month later some skunk down the hall blows the whistle on the whole shebang because he thinks he can get a lucrative book deal out of it. The whole thing blows sky high, and the first thing you know, your friend is on the stand trying to explain why he didn’t say something. Because he said nothing, he is now complicit.

A second complicating factor is to note the implicit standards that are baked into words like “traitor.” So your friend blows the whistle on some operation that has the Constitution duct taped to a chair in the basement. The defenders of the program appeal to national security, of course, and accuse your friend of betraying his country, helping out the terrorists on his way. There are two layers to processing this accusation.

The first one asks whether the accusation is true. There are many occasions when cleaning up a department, or a program, or an agency, could be something that helps a nation fight its terrorist enemies. So is the accusation true? We do not want to establish as a truism this sentiment — “if we clean up our internal corruptions, the terrorists win.”

But what if it is true? We still don’t know whether it was unrighteous or not. Rahab was a traitor when she hid the spies and gave aid and comfort to them. She was undeniably a traitor, and no doubt violated all kinds of protocols. Was Bonhoeffer a traitor? Those American Christians who want to outlaw  this line of thought at the very outset want to outlaw it because they are idolaters. I carry no brief for jihadists, or the Russians, or the drug cartels — as any regular reader of this blog well knows. But if I ever come to believe that America is right by definition, then the graven image is no less graven because I carved it inside my head.

This leads to a third complication, closely related to the second. In our current set-up, the oath we take is to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is an oath I have taken in the past, and would be happy to take in the future. It is a lawful oath. But there are implicit standards embedded in it that will be read quite differently by different sides in a conflict. The foreign enemies are easier to identify, because of their amphibious landing craft at Rehoboth beach. Yay. Let’s go fight the bad guys. I love it when things are clear.

But . . . enemies of the Constitution . . . foreign and domestic. Those domestic enemies are not conveniently located for us down at the anarchist cafe. They don’t all have eye patches. They are found throughout the State Department. They are men who hold positions of high command in the military. They run for the office of the presidency and they make it. You come across the plot in all its . . . manchurianyness . . . and you do what? You have to keep your oath, right? Even though everyone in the world will think you are violating your oath? Such oaths are kept before God, not before one of those focus groups.

All of which is to say that Christians who wrestle with their responsibilities to speak the truth, to whistleblow or not, are not doing so in a healthy society, with one regrettable problem that happened to occur right next to them. No, they are wrestling with this problem — and it is a big one — in a corrupt society, the corruptions of which are well-advanced. Stage 4, in fact. This means that when you take your oaths, and when you sign your non-disclosure agreements, you need to understand what those actions actually require of you. And in order to do that, you have to understand the world around you. And its a mess, I tell you.

  • Kyle B

    In our society, we treat the Constitution just like Satan treated God’s law in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say….?”

  • Eric the Red

    I am puzzled at the failure to draw a distinction between Snowden’s blowing the whistle on domestic surveillance, and his blowing the whistle on our spying on the Russians and Chinese. Whatever Constitutional issues there may be with domestic spying, it seems crystal clear to me that our security agencies have not only the right, but the duty, to do everything in their power to keep up with what Moscow and Beijing are up to. And furthermore, neither the Russian nor Chinese governments have rights under the US Constitution.

    So even though I’m inclined to be somewhat sympathetic to whistleblowing that exposes wrongs done to Americans, I think Snowden crossed a line when he went on to divulge our international spying. For that, I’d give him 30 years.

  • Matthias

    Eric, do you have a link? I hadn’t heard that. Thanks in advance.

  • Nicholas J. Gausling

    The bottom line for Christians to realize: the state is not a friend of society, and it’s certainly not a friend of the Church.

    Here’s one of the best resources I know of that develops and discusses that fact:

  • Elise

    Oh no, now the Russians know we’re spying on them? And they were so certain we would only spy on each other. Whatever is to be done?

  • L Butler

    Eric, I was under the impression that he had divulged NSA spying on Chinese citizens cell phones. Maybe he did more, but I would also like a link that shows he warned one government of another government spying only on the government.

  • katecho

    Snowden’s offense seems to be that he confirmed what everyone already knew (or should have known by now).

    We’ve read about the Utah Data Center for years (note the date on this article is November 2, 2009, and this article is from Sept 24, 2011) For an intelligence facility with this capacity, what did we think they were going to store there? Recipes?

    For some strange reason, we (our media handlers?) just decided to suddenly start caring. I wonder what the trigger was, because we weren’t concerned before. Perhaps the challenge in America is that we now need someone to tell us when to care about our liberties.

  • Daniel A

    Eric bring up the most troubling thing for me, as well. I am in full agreement that this is a right and good reason to blow the whistle on corruption, but I am not convinced that exposing corruption and over-the-top surveillance was Snowden’s goal. Yes, we did discover (or rather, find the proof, for who didn’t already suspect these NSA activities anyway?) that our good ole American government was spying us, but that appears to be just a small portion of the leaked docs that Snowden has escaped with. As a freedom-loving individual, I’m certainly happy to have the proof that our government is corrupt, and will use that as fuel for my liberty torch, but I’m not okay with a guy running all around the world blabbing secrets that are actually legitimate and appropriate in nature. Time will tell, but every passing day is proving Snowden to be more than just your freedom-loving, corruption-hating whistleblower. It would appear that he’s got a vendetta, and if so, his actions shouldn’t be smiled upon, praised, or condoned wholesale.

  • Eric the Red

    I’m not someplace where I can do internet research right now, but I heard on the evening news last night that he had given the Chinese government a list of all Chinese buildings whose emails had been hacked. And it had been reported previously that he had disclosed to the Russans that we bugged Putin at the last G-8 meeting.

    All of which leads to the conclusion that this guy is not acting out of a love of liberty, because if he were, he would not be helping countries with far less liberty than we still have here. Nope; he’s acting out of anti-American animus. He wants us to look bad. And yes, I do think that makes a difference in analyzing whether he’s a hero or a traitor.

  • Andrew W

    “And yes, I do think that makes a difference in analyzing whether he’s a hero or a traitor.”

    Eric, I disagree with you on many things, but I am in 100% agreement with you on this.

  • Matthias

    Perhaps, Eric. If that’s true, he seems to be more in the Assange vein of things, so we’re stuck deciding between traitor, hero, and foolhardy. “Secrets, secrets,…” as they say.

  • Douglas L.

    I think the ethical analysis in this article is too complicated – oddly enough, too utilitarian. Christian ethics is not weighing consequences, but keeping commandments.

    Too much is made of how corrupt our government might be at this point in time. From the Augustinian point of view, it is to be expected that things are like this, as with all governments.

    Only near the very end of this article is the crucial element mentioned, that nondisclosure agreements have been signed. Without signing such agreements – and even more, undergoing extensive interviews as to whether you can conscientiously keep the agreement under all forseeable circumstances – you would not get the job. You are being paid your salary in good part not to do something – i.e, blab.

    So were I the pastor to whom the troubled employee of the NSA came asking for ethical advice, I would say of course, you have to keep your personal word that you gave as a condition of being hired. A Christian’s yes should be yes, his no should be no. The time for a Christian to do serious ethical thinking about the matter ought to be before he signs the nondisclosure agreement, and gives all possible assurances in the security interviews that he really means it.

  • Mark B. Hanson

    Douglas L.,

    But what happens when, after we have signed the NDA for an organization that is by all public views legal and moral, we discover that “Soylent Green is people” – that the organization is in fact violating the constitution by killing or torturing without the authority to do so? Is the NDA the same as the Catholics’ “seal of the confessional”, that God’s law prohibits us to violate?

  • Douglas L.

    Surely one could come up with an ethical scenario in which the Christian in good faith signed the NDA and did the security interviews indicating that he really would keep his promise – and then finds that keeping the NDA is in fact impossible, because the “secrets” being kept are in fact crimes against humanity. Thus, scenario of in WW2 a German Christian policeman signing up to be part of a brigade to go to the Eastern front to hunt down saboteurs (with an NDA), and when he gets there finds that really he has been brought out to be part of a Einsatzgrupp to exterminate all Jews. To keep his promise would be to treat murder as if it were no crime.
    But this is not, it seems, anything like the ethical choice that Mr. Snowden faced in fact. The evidence seems to be that Snowden was being deliberately deceptive, getting his security clearance in order to be in a position to leak official secrets. It might, in the providence of God, be a Good Thing that Mr. Snowden disclosed to the public what he has divulged. But Mr. Snowden was not a good person in doing so – a person whose word is his bond. What is providentially overruled for good may be an unrighteous deed – Genesis 50:20.

  • Joy

    I wanted to email this article directly to Pastor Doug. However, not knowing his email address, I figured this was the next best route. The following op-ed on AJ English is very interesting. The author breaks down the inherent hypocrisies of the US government’s approach to the whole Snowden debacle – particularly as it manifests in international relations.

    This comment is less of a statement and more of a, “hey, check this out.”

    That said … I would like to specifically agree with his last point: that the obsession with the messenger and avoidance of the message are ultimately counterproductive. IF Snowden were a modern Jonah figure, this would not be the right response. So, is he?