The cases of Pfc. Bradley Manning, who prefers to be known as Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden raise acute issues about the role of confidentiality in our society and the responsibilities of individuals who encounter disturbing information that they consider damaging to national security. In each case, an individual chose to divulge classified information even though confidentiality agreements forbade it. Both Private Manning and Mr. Snowden claim they were acting in the national interest. They both chose to violate their obligations: Private Manning to the U.S. military, Mr. Snowden to a private government contractor. They have been called both traitors and heroes, and the debate about their actions promises to continue for some time.
One question worth focusing on is the moral legitimacy of their choices. At a time when more and more government information is designated as classified, and when employees of all stripes are required to keep information secret, when is it justifiable for an individual to go public with certain information? The question extends beyond debates about national security to the actions of financial institutions, for example. Could the financial collapse of 2008 have been averted if more conscientious bankers had stepped forward?
In the 1970s Daniel Ellsberg, an employee at the Rand Corporation, was publicly castigated for leaking classified information about U.S. policy in Vietnam. Today there are whistleblowers in all industries. Before their actions are judged traitorous or heroic, it is worth revisiting certain moral categories. The Catholic moral tradition offers a number of principles that can help guide those who face this moral challenge.
Conscience. The Catholic tradition strongly emphasizes the inviolability of conscience. Yet an individual must engage in a serious process of formation before taking actions based on its demands. “Following an unformed conscience is simply an act of recklessness,” the Jesuit ethicist James F. Keenan told America. Individuals must consider their role within society and how it relates to the common good. For Private Manning and Mr. Snowden, their roles required a high level of confidentiality; so to be legitimate, their decision to release documents should have been a last resort. At a time when it is increasingly easy to share data digitally, it can be tempting to pass on sensitive information without sufficient deliberation. Employees must consider whether there are other ways to address their concerns, like going through official channels before divulging sensitive information to the media. An individual must also be aware that the decision to leak documents could lead to imprisonment. Willingness to accept legal punishment for one’s actions is a sign that an act of disobedience is sincere.
Prudence. Two principles stand in tension when considering whether to make information public: the public’s right to know and the right to secrecy. Both of these virtues are important, yet neither is absolute. Some information is damaging to national security and should be kept secret; at other times the government’s claims for secrecy are overblown. Weighing and balancing these considerations is an exercise in prudence. Prudence also requires that individuals understand their competence to evaluate the material at hand. This calculus must also take into account the integrity of the person or institution with which the material is being shared. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Ellsberg was working with respected news operations, with their own set of professional standards.
Justice and fidelity. Our society could not function if individuals routinely broke their agreements. Employees of all types owe fidelity to their employers, if not to a professional code of conduct. This is especially true of members of the military or people in public service. Yet it is these same people who are privy to information of national interest. At times, claims of justice may supersede the claims of fidelity. For government workers, one’s professional duty sometimes includes a legal and moral duty to report violations of international law, especially if the violations are being covered up.
When Mr. Ellsberg copied top-secret documents and circulated them to reporters, he was a veteran of public service who made a deliberate act based on his gradual disillusionment with the Vietnam War. Today, with more private contractors taking over the work of national security, more individuals have access to classified information. Meanwhile our government continues to press for secrecy on mundane as well as sensitive matters. In this environment it is inevitable that there will be more whistleblowers, who for reasons both selfish and noble will divulge all sorts of information to an increasingly confused public. The manner in which these individuals choose to act, and how our government chooses to treat them, depends in large measure on the public conversation we are now having.