A Dare for NSA Staffers: Do the Quarter-Snowden With a Twist

How to register alarm without revealing secrets or risking jail

With 2014 upon us, NSA employees are perhaps casting about for a New Year's resolution. Depending on how much they know about mass surveillance on innocent Americans, they may be conflicted. On one hand, they've signed a civil contract to keep their employer's secrets. On the other hand, as federal employees, they've also taken an oath to protect and defend the United States Constitution, and when federal bureaucracies break the law, their staffers are morally obligated to report it.

Edward Snowden is the most famous person to face that dilemma. He decided to leak classified information. In doing so, he gave up a comfortable life in Hawaii with his girlfriend. Now he faces decades in jail and lives in exile to avoid prosecution. There may be other NSA employees who are convinced that their employer needs to be reined in, but are averse to leaking classified information and facing jail time.

Perhaps the full Edward Snowden isn't for them.

But I want to encourage them to execute a different trick in 2014, a little something I've dubbed, in anticipation of the upcoming Olympic Games, the quarter-Snowden with a twist.

It doesn't require leaking classified information. Nor does it violate the law. To pull off the quarter-Snowden with a twist, which requires even less than a quarter of Snowden's courage, an NSA employee need only resign their position, seek out a trustworthy journalist of their choice, and announce that while they aren't at liberty to reveal any state secrets, they believe that Congress ought to rein in the NSA immediately. "If Senators Dianne Feinstein and Ron Wyden, who are permitted to see classified information, are listening," the staffer could say, "I'd like to brief them on my concerns." At least one of those Senate Intelligence Committee members will take the plea seriously.

The quarter-Snowden with a twist requires giving up a lucrative, intellectually challenging job during a time when the economy continues to be slow. But it is the right thing to do. And as far as patriotic sacrifices go, it is far less burdensome than the price many have paid.

In the present political environment, it is also likely to have a powerful effect.

If there are no NSA employees whose consciences are bothering them, then this article can be ignored. I suspect that there are NSA employees who sympathize with Snowden's actions but understandably can't bring themselves to break the law or risk jail. They ought to remember the more conservative course that permits them to register their considered opinion that the NSA goes too far without betraying its secrets.

Let your conscience be your guide.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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