Latest News & Current Events

Snowden- Confidentiality, Non-Disclosure and Ethics

As we watch the slow motion global political dance unfold, Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who leaked information on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, allegedly left Hong Kong and was reported to be in transit in Russia. The former CIA technician, who has worked for the NSA, has been charged with espionage by US authorities after he leaked details of American telephone and internet surveillance programs.

On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Hong Kong had made a "deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship". This came after China's top state newspaper - the voice of the communist party - praised the whistleblower for "tearing off Washington's sanctimonious mask".

The People's Daily, which reflects the official thinking of the Chinese government, criticized America for attacking Hong Kong's decision to allow him to flee. With Snowden reported to be in transit in Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russian security agencies "didn't work and aren't working" with Snowden - dismissing any such claims as "ravings and rubbish". He said the fact that Russia has no extradition agreement with the US meant it would not be meeting the American request to send him there. However, he said he is hoping the 30-year-old will leave soon and that the stopover at the airport will not affect its relationship with the US.

US Secretary of State John Kerry responded by calling for Russia to be "calm" and hand over Snowden, but said Washington was not looking for "confrontation." Mr Kerry has dubbed Snowden a traitor, and warned both Russia and China that their relations with the US might be damaged by their refusal to extradite him. Snowden is expected to fly from Moscow to Cuba and then on to Ecuador, possibly via Venezuela. Ecuador's foreign minister said on Tuesday he did not know where Snowden was.

While many politicians including House majority leader Boehner have been outspoken in declaring Snowden a traitor, the debate on whether or not Snowden should be considered a “whistleblower” for alerting the population at large about the NSA surveillance program continues to rage.

At the very least, Snowden is in violation of a confidentiality agreement to not disclose classified information. As an NSA contractor employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden required security clearance and would certainly have been required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In most instances, employees are not in a position to apply their own moral and ethical judgment to non-public information that they have access to and decide on their own to make information widely available. In the case of the military, individuals take an oath to protect the Constitution. While it is unclear if that oath is required by NSA contractors, as a former member of the CIA Snowden would have been required to take such an oath previously.

The hardline approach on this matter would be to simply say that Edward Snowden violated his non-disclosure agreement and since he disclosed classified information he committed treason. This however is where things start to become a little grey.

In the corporate world, a whistleblower that exposes legal wrongdoing is exempt from any non-disclosure commitment to the company. In the NSA surveillance case the legal question regarding the constitutionality of the program is still to be resolved. Does a non-disclosure agreement trump an oath made to protect the Constitution? If Snowdon believed he was violating his oath to protect the Constitution, than is it treason to tell, or more treasonous not to tell?

The first step remains to decide whether the monitoring was unconstitutional or not.

In Edward Snowden’s case however he says he sought the job with Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence on the agency's data collection networks.

In a June 12 interview with the South China Morning Post published Monday, Snowden, who previously worked as a CIA technician, said he took the position with the intention of collecting information on the NSA.

“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he said. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”

Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: “Correct on Booz.”

Snowden also told the Hong Kong newspaper that he intends to leak more documents on the NSA's programs.

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