[Edward Snowden’s] disclosures of NSA documents were certainly “unauthorized disclosures” as has been charged, but there is no reason that any government authorization should be required. Indeed, it is quite absurd to suggest that government permission should be required to disclose evidence of government criminality. But what of the remaining property-based claim that Snowden’s actions involve the “theft” of government property?
This question can be dealt with in a similar manner, by consideration of the ordinary rules pertaining to the use of property in criminal dealings. When a private firm commits a crime using its own property as an instrument of wrongdoing it loses the right to claim ownership as a safeguard against investigation. If an investigator confiscates digging equipment and barrels of toxic waste from a private firm accused of dumping these on the property of others it is no bar to this action if the firm presents a receipt showing that the equipment belongs to them. (Indeed, this would be taken as further evidence linking them to the alleged crime.)
Government claims to ownership have no special status in this regard, and do not override these ordinary principles of property rights. In fact, the situation for government claims of ownership is even weaker than for a private enterprise, since the latter will generally have acquired the tools of its criminal dealings with its own money. If a private firm unlawfully dumps toxic waste on the property of others, it is likely that it has at least legitimately purchased its own barrels and digging equipment without having also stolen these. On the contrary, government agencies are built on a system of coercion, where the resources for their operations are extracted through forcible payment from the public, i.e., through taxation. Unlike in a private firm, this gives rise to a situation in which the “shareholders” of government are forced to contribute the instruments of further criminal activity, whether they wish to participate or not. Government claims to ownership of the property in its possession are extremely dubious, and this is made more so when the claim to ownership is made in order to shield knowledge of its own operations from those very shareholders. When the claim to ownership is made to prevent the disclosure of documents detailing further criminal actions by the government, the appeal to property rights is thrice-damned!
In the case of private crimes it would be unusual that the accused wrongdoer would present a claim to ownership of documents linking himself to a serious crime. Most would want to do everything possible to avoid corroborating ownership of items proving their criminal guilt, and even if this were to be a fruitless endeavor, it would be regarded as the height of chutzpah to claim the protection of property rights to evidence of criminal wrongdoing! But government is altogether unashamed of such absurdities. Faced with clear publicized documentary evidence of extensive lawbreaking by its own agencies, the government screams across the news media “Those are our secret documents! How dare they be stolen from us!”
Notwithstanding the legitimacy of Snowden’s disclosures of classified NSA material, one objection that has been raised against his actions is the fact that he went outside the official government-sanctioned channels for oversight of its agencies. According to this view, the reporting of government misconduct and criminality must be reported within the rules calculated by that same institution, by reporting to government oversight agencies or Congressional committees. If agencies of the US government engage in secret acts of despotism, an aspiring whistleblower must meekly turn to other agents of the government and ask, “Please Sir, tell me which forms to fill out. How might I go about filing a complaint that suits your requirements?”
From the essay “The Ethics of State Secrecy” by Ben O’Neill, posted on the Ludwig von Mises Institute website.
Thanks C. for sending this my way.
The Edward Snowden story is the most compelling American political story since September 11th, 2001. I originally posted a short essay in defense of Snowden only a few hours after the news media began to cover his case. I took that essay down for fear that I may have spoken too soon, and that perhaps there was a hidden, more sinister side to the narrative. Yet in the time since, I haven’t really changed my mind, and I’m enthused to find out that some 25% of Americans now ‘strongly oppose’ the federal government’s largely unrestrained, unwarranted mining of our cell phone calls, private emails, and online communication — essentially everything we say. (24% ‘strongly support’ such action.)
What’s so fascinating, however, about this story is not Snowden himself, contrary to what our personality-obsessed media will tell you. Rather, it’s the allies you will find on whatever respective side you take here. Our ossified legislature and deeply partisan political discourse have been ideologically scrambled in a way I have not seen in my lifetime. This issue has Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul linking arms in opposition to the NSA’s covert programs. Michael Moore and Glenn Beck, those two great clowns of American political theater, have each expressed staunch support for Snowden, and that bipartisanship generalizes. I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve been checking the Mises Institute a lot for information on this — and I think their publications have been for the most part right on the money.
If we consent to these secret actions now, how intrusive will the government’s future secret programs be?
The picture above is Ludwig Von Mises: a man who escaped the holocaust, taught himself English, and less than a decade later had written On Human Action, an over one-thousand page exploration of libertarianism and classical liberal economics.
F.A. Hayek once toasted Mises at a party, saying, “I came to know Ludwig mainly as a tremendously efficient executive, the kind of man who, as was said of John Stuart Mill, because he does a normal day’s work in two hours, always has a clear desk and time to talk about anything. I came to know him as one of the best educated and informed men I have ever known…”