Edward Snowden and the Call for Just Intelligence

Edward Snowden, if nothing else, has caused a lot of angst among the American people. He has brought to the fore a debate that has become increasingly acute in our post-9/11 world, and the unusual security problems it presents the United States. However the debate he sparked is not a new one for liberal democracy: the balancing of rights, especially that of privacy and security for the population, has long stirred controversy.

For those seeking to thoughtfully respond to the questions Snowden presents regarding the merits of our intelligence apparatus from an intentionally Christian perspective, wading into this debate is very difficult: our intellectual resources our limited, and the existing moral framework to analyze such actions remains a bit opaque.Shared Justice recently explored various aspects of Christian political theology, such as just war theory and human dignity (and its connection to public justice), but it’s important to intentionally apply this to one of our government’s most nagging current issues.

The recent revelations from Snowden highlight the need for this serious reflection: Documents provided by the former National Security Agency contractor show that the NSA has actively undermined cyber-security standardsworldwide, tapped Google and Yahoo fiber optic cables in between data centers, hacked foreign leaders’ phones, and recorded and stored “metadata” of U.S. citizens from phone and technology companies, among other activities.

The unveiling of this government activity produced a public and international uproar, as well as crusading on Capitol Hill to reign in the perceived excesses of American intelligence agencies. But what gave rise to this passion? What has provoked the strong outcry following The Guardian’s bold publication of Snowden’s treasure chest of top-secret information?  In large part, I think we can point to the conviction, especially prominent in the U.S., that individuals possess an expansive right to privacy. While the constitutional foundations of such a right are probably shaky, it has become an implicit element of American political philosophy: from conservative libertarians to civil rights activists on the political left, privacy is understood as a basic American right.

The Moral Responsibility of Government

As the editorial team at Shared Justice recently pointed out, human dignity—and by extension, human rights, play an important role in shaping a Christian political theology. And so in that sense a right to privacy might serve as a basic building block for informing our analysis of U.S. intelligence activities. And even while that right might not be a human right (or rather, a natural right) in the modern United States, citizens certainly consider privacy to be what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls a socially-conferred right, a right that Wolterstorff points out is further undergirded by natural rights. Thus, human dignity, in the form of rights, can help the Christian in initially understanding the moral responsibilities of government concerning the regulation of U.S. intelligence activities.

But a right to privacy is only an initial principle, for it is both ambiguous and its scope is hotly contested. Norms governing intelligence would be edified and informed through an understanding of public justice and the Kuyperian understanding of sphere sovereignty that underlies it.  Sphere sovereignty holds that God has created many different “spheres” of life, such as the state, business, the family, etc. that each possess their own mandate and prerogative in ordering and ensuring the flourishing of human life. When one sphere invades upon the authority given to another, it affects the ability of both the individual and the community to live as God desires. For the work of government spies and intelligence-gatherers, this suggests that too far an intrusion into other spheres disrupts human flourishing and in some sense, the created order. Further, the long-reaching tentacles of U.S. intelligence agencies also indicate that the proper order of government under a vision of public justice has also become unhinged and unbalanced.

Signs of Breakdown

Snowden’s revelations reveal signs of serious breakdown in the normative roles played by our government (i.e., the roles played by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches). Of course, these signs are not relegated simply to intelligence activities: much of our government shows signs of paralysis and abuse due to the increasing philosophical divides that ferments the government’s gridlock (e.g. immigration reform, judicial appointments, and budget matters). But in the arena of intelligence, this breakdown is especially acute: both the courts and the legislature have failed to provide oversight, ceding power to an executive branch (or more accurately, an intelligence community) that, in the absence of clear guidelines or supervision, has vigorously sought to attain its goals.

In part, one might easily forgive the NSA for its perceived overreaches. The nature of today’s intelligence gathering means that efforts to collect information are decentralized and ubiquitous. For the United States, terrorism is a global threat, spread across many countries with a myriad of actors. The NSA has responded in kind: with an approach that prizes gathering all possibly meaningful data, and then later sorting through it to determine whether it might be helpful in identifying terrorists wishing harm to the U.S. or its allies. This stands in contrast to more traditional focuses of intelligences agencies: other nation-states (which are far more organized and centralized) that might wish to harm the U.S.

But this approach has raised serious ethical concerns, based on the norms suggested here: the social-conferred right to privacy and the normative structure of government vis a vis itself and society as a whole. Yet simultaneously, we have to acknowledge that humans have a natural right to security. That is to say, that as beings with endowed worth, all humans have a right to live in an environment of peace, free from pressing concerns about possible bodily harm because of external threats. Further, human flourishing, one of the essential ends of government previously highlighted, also requires that humans enjoy freedom from external threats. Therefore, from a moral standpoint, the state is obligated to respect this right. Yet this produces the moral conundrum we often find ourselves in, debating the ever-contentious pendulum of security and personal liberties and privacy.

Spheres of Responsibility

So then, what can Christians informed by a public justice political approach suggest as a way forward? Perhaps most significantly, we must consider what public justice means, and how the norms governing spheres might inform our debate. Doing so suggests that much more oversight—from both Congress and the courts—is required to restore faith in the legitimacy of our intelligence efforts. In this sense, Obama’s preliminary proposals represent a step in the right direction. That said, the continuing path forward will not be easy: the philosophical debate that is raging in our Congress has caused it to all but grind to a halt. But perhaps invoking the common ground of a right to privacy, an idea supported across the political spectrum, and one that Christians can support as well, can create traction for protecting this right, defending other spheres from the NSA’s seemingly universal surveillance, and in helping to restore the distorted balance of power in our government.

And beyond the thoughts outlined here, Christians need to further consider what “just” intelligence policies and practices require of governments. It is an area of Christian thought in need of further development, yet given its complexity it is a difficult one. You are invited to share your thoughts in the comments section, reflecting on what the norms here might mean for spying and intelligence, and to articulate what other principles might be important in ensuring justice in this morally complicated task of government.

-Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.