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Snowden: Traitor or hero?

Ruth Haag • Aug 13, 2013 at 3:00 PM

We are all exposed to unethical behavior all of the time. We constantly have to make decisions as to what we are going to do. Should we go along, refuse to take part, expose the behavior, or maybe sue someone? Edward Snowden decided that what he found as a contractor’s employee working for the National Security Agency was so bad that he felt he needed to leak it to the press and leave the country to avoid being arrested. This was a pretty big self-sacrifice.

First ethical dilemmas

Most of us face our first ethical challenge as children. Often it is a case such as the one I experienced: My mother offered me an out when she asked me who had drawn on the wall. I could admit that I did it, or I could blame the other being in the room. I chose to blame the other being. This solution didn’t work for me because the dog clearly could not draw! Hopefully, we learn from these decisions and mistakes, to tell the truth. Copying school work often provides the next ethical decision we have to make. Should we tell the teacher when we see someone copying?

Work-world dilemmas

In our 22 years as hazardous waste remediation contractors, my partner and I often had to make decisions between what our client wanted us to do and keeping on the ethical straight and narrow. We were asked to move lines on contaminated plume maps so that the plume would end where the property did. We had lawyers ask us to assert that their client was in compliance: “Can’t you say that at this one minute in time he was in compliance, write that in your report and not mention that at the next minute he was not in compliance?” We have been asked to destroy draft reports that reflected where clients had eliminated words, like “contamination,” “dangerous,” and “waste.” We have been asked to give the client’s representative expensive gifts.

Sometimes the request was more subtle, as when my husband, Bob, worked in the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and was instructed to answer all questions of a certain kind with a phrase like, “This is what the Department of Energy has decided to do.” This created more of an obfuscation than a lie, but it still rankled.

The solution

Since people behaving unethically is pretty much all-pervasive, the solution for work-world ethical dilemmas is determined by whether we want to keep our job or not. If you don’t mind losing your job, or your citizenship, you can simply and righteously tell everyone who will listen about the unethical behavior of your client or supervisor. I always feel that this approach makes a momentary effect, but as soon as you are gone, everyone forgets about you. Snowden is getting a bit more mileage out of this than is the norm.

Often, you can tell if an accusation is on the mark or not by the response. Pretty much if an entity or person is accurately accused, they respond with one of these phrases: “You are behaving unprofessionally,” “You are a traitor,” or “How could you hurt this organization like that?”

For those of us who want to keep our jobs, the solution is to politely guide the client to a proper resolution. In our business we have had to explain why we can’t change the scientific data, but propose how the client can deal with the outfall. We have agreed to purchase winter coats for a client, but we explained how the costs of the coat would show up in their detailed invoice. We decided to tell clients upfront in our initial contract negotiations that we would not destroy draft reports.

Did Edward Snowden make the right choice? Did he have any other options? Is he a traitor, or a hero?

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