Last week Norman Solomon applauded Edward Snowden’s courage in revealing American secrets. So did Veronika Krasheninnikova of the Russian Institute for Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives, who drew parallels between Snowden’s moral principles and those of atomic spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Revealing your country’s secrets when you have taken an oath not to is not a moral act. Instead, it may be foolish or treasonous and have serious results. For Snowden, contacting Senators Rand Paul or Ron Wyden, of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also have privacy concerns, might better serve the moral purpose.
American atomic spies who received Soviet asylum provided insight into theirs and the Rosenberg’s moral purpose. They felt it was better for the working class that the U.S. and Soviet Union both have the atomic bomb than only the U.S.
There were consequences from the Soviets exploding an atomic bomb in 1949. In 1946, the U.S. virtually disarmed, counting on our nuclear monopoly to dissuade the Soviets from invading Western Europe. We concentrated our resources on domestic programs like the G.I. Bill, on paying off WWII debt and the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Western Europe’s economies.
Effectively, the U.S. tolerated Stalin’s conquests, but our atomic monopoly stopped him from going further.
In June 1950, 10 months after the Soviet bomb, Soviet-armed North Korea invaded South Korea. American troops sent to stop them were initially outgunned. After a U.S. counter-offensive and Chinese intervention, the Korean peninsula stabilized into the present situation. Hungarian and Polish revolts in 1956 were suppressed by Soviet tanks. Both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. embarked on hydrogen bomb programs and a massive arms race, attempting to establish military dominance.
The effect of breaking the U.S. atomic monopoly did nothing for the working class. Its results were not moral at all. Rather, it provided a nuclear shield for the Soviets to control their empire and the world faced the threat of annihilation for the next 40 years.
Snowden’s revelations will not have the impact of those of the atomic spies, but they are not moral either. Krasheninnikova and other Russian spokespeople, along with my Chinese friends, cite the Snowden affair as evidence of hypocrisy in the American campaign for human rights. Although that campaign has done a lot of good, it has irritated those nations that punish free expression of ideas. Our human rights campaign will be less effective and those who relied on it for protection may be the losers.
Snowden did not stop with revealing that the N.S.A. collected a dataset of the phone and Internet connections made between U.S. residents and people elsewhere. He showed our adversaries, including terrorists, how the N.S.A. monitored communications all over the world. As a result, they have already changed their behavior.
That this monitoring was established so that our intelligence agencies could “connect the dots” and prevent terrorist plots, something that we were unable to do for 9/11, did not influence his actions. Snowden revealed secrets without concern for damage to the United States and its people. Furthermore, as reported in the South China Morning Post, Snowden had already decided to reveal the secrets he would find before he applied for work at the N.S.A.
It is not sufficient for an American to create a moral justification so that they can act against the interests of our country. A very high standard of proof is required and they must be willing to face justice, like Daniel Ellsberg did when he revealed the Pentagon Papers. Snowden acted with abandon and he ran away. I hope he gets to face justice in an American court.
Chet Seligman is a 42-year resident of Point Reyes Station and Inverness a recently retired scientist for the Buck Institute for Research in Aging.