Matt C. Abbott
Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and the morality of governmental powers
By Matt C. Abbott
June 25, 2013

From Reuters (excerpted; click here for the article in its entirety):
    Fugitive former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden was seeking asylum in Ecuador [on June 23] after Hong Kong allowed his departure for Russia in a slap to Washington's efforts to extradite him on espionage charges....

    Ecuador, which has been sheltering WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange at its London embassy for the past year, once again took center stage in an international diplomatic saga over U.S. data secrecy....

    Snowden, who had worked at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, had been hiding in Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to China in 1997, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to news media....

    U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, with the latter two charges falling under the U.S. Espionage Act....
I asked priest-author-theologian Father John Trigilio Jr., president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, to do a moral analysis of the actions of Snowden and Assange and the issues that encompass those actions.

Father's response (slightly edited) is as follows:
    Catholic morality and ethics allows for the keeping of secrets. It is not an absolute right, except in the case of the secrecy or seal of confession, which is sacrosanct. Natural secrets are those private pieces of personal information every individual knows, believes and presumes to be kept confidential from the general public. Nations and countries, likewise, have the right to conceal and keep confidential information vital to national defense.

    Furthermore, nations have a right to investigate suspicious activity of citizens if reasonable fear exists that certain individuals are either directly threatening the common good (terrorists, e.g.) or are engaged in possible espionage (revealing national secrets to foreign powers, especially enemy countries and groups). Spying on citizens, however, is not an absolute right, and, in fact, is restricted to a set of parameters to protect general privacy conventions.

    In other words, the government has the right to monitor communications of known or suspected terrorists and criminals to ascertain if future or immanent acts of terror or violence are being planned or executed. However, spying on everyone indiscriminately is an abuse of power. Subpoenas and search warrants must be obtained and based on reasonable, credible and legal evidence that a crime is immanent or has already transpired. Tapping everyone's phone lines or reading everyone's email just to find out what a few criminals and terrorists are plotting is neither prudent nor justifiable ethically or morally. Strategically targeting specific persons and groups based on credible evidence and evaluated by concrete standards and statutes allows the government to do legal surveillance but it must be limited to precise locations, persons, and so on.

    Hence, the FBI, CIA, NSA, et al., have a natural right to protect national secrets by investigating those persons and groups reasonably and credibly shown to be involved in the planning, plotting, execution or assistance of acts of espionage or terror. Espionage is not whistle-blowing, however. Disclosing and revealing illegal, immoral and unconstitutional acts by the government, its agencies or representatives, is not espionage if it is revealed to the press rather than to a foreign government or criminal organization.

    It can be treason, however, if a government employee discloses national secrets to the press with the intent or effect of causing harm to national security. For example, it was espionage when American scientists revealed secrets of the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union. It was treason when a military or civilian government employee leaks to the press information which endangers our troops, our foreign operatives or agents, or jeopardizes possible clandestine operations. Whistle-blowing, on the other hand, is when someone reveals and discloses illegal, unconstitutional and/or immoral activity or projects being done or supervised by the government.

    WikiLeaks discloses secret information on the internet. It is not espionage in that no one is spying for a specific foreign government. It is treasonous, however, for government officials or employees or military personnel to reveal secret information to WikiLeaks or anyone in the press and media if that information threatens the national security and risks the lives of citizens and the common good. Revealing a government conspiracy to spy on political enemies, however, is whistle-blowing, since the government has no moral right to spy on citizens in order to promote or harm an agenda of a political party. Hence, spying on liberal or conservative persons and groups by the opposing party in power is an abuse of power and should be disclosed. Spying on political opponents is something done in totalitarian regimes, not democratic republics.

    While we are dealing with prudential judgments, one must always evaluate the content of what is being disclosed or leaked and the context. If information is being sold or being given to foreign powers, it is espionage. If the information is leaked to the press but has the effect of harming national security, it is treason. But if the information being disclosed is done with the intent and the effect of exposing unconstitutional, illegal and/or immoral activity by the government, it is whistle-blowing and should be protected.

    If someone reveals names of agents, locations of military troops or details of clandestine operations (which are not immoral), that is inexcusable and reckless. It is also treasonous since it harms the common good of the nation by harming national security. On the other hand, if any agent or agency, government or military official or representative, engages in immoral and unethical activity (e.g., torturing or intentionally killing non-combatants, performing involuntary experiments on human beings), then those who know have a moral obligation to expose these heinous crimes.

    Government surveillance of its citizens is permitted, but it must be restricted, limited and have civilian oversight. Indiscriminate spying on citizens is an abuse. Identifying and preventing acts of terror, however, is a noble and necessary activity of national intelligence agencies. It would be wrong for the government to eavesdrop on every phone conversation or read every email since all citizens have the right to natural privacy. That said, national security allows the government to target certain persons and groups who demonstrate and evidence an actual threat to the nation.

    What constitutes a threat to national security is a prudential judgment. When a liberal government targets pro-life organizations or traditional marriage and family groups for surveillance because they oppose the immoral and radical agenda of a current administration or regime – that is an abuse of power. When radical Islamo-fascist groups are monitored for possible terrorist connections – that is prudent and justifiable national security. The threat to the common good must be an immanent danger to the common good where innocent lives are at stake and not merely the political opposition to socialist or anti-traditional policies.

    Citizens and nations are entitled to natural secrets, but when secret or clandestine activity of individuals or governments cross the line and become unethical, immoral and unconstitutional, they need to be exposed and prevented. When people reveal or disclose secrets, we must always examine what is being divulged, why is it being leaked, and what are the consequences and ramifications. There needs to be a proper balance between privacy and national security and accountability of the government to its citizens.

    © Matt C. Abbott


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He also has an Associate in Applied Science degree in business management from Triton College. Abbott has been interviewed on HLN, MSNBC, Bill Martinez Live, WOSU Radio in Ohio, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's 2019 ‘Unsolved’ podcast about the unsolved murder of Father Alfred Kunz, Alex Shuman's 'Smoke Screen: Fake Priest' podcast, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) and WISC-TV (CBS) in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets. He’s mentioned in the 2020 Report on the Holy See's Institutional Knowledge and Decision-Making Related to Former Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick (1930 to 2017), which can be found on the Vatican's website. He can be reached at

(Note: I welcome and appreciate thoughtful feedback. Insults will be ignored. Only in very select cases will I honor a request to have a telephone conversation about a topic in my column. Email is much preferred. God bless you and please keep me in your prayers!)


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