Acton Institute Powerblog

Can Whistleblowing Be Biblically Justified?

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Last week, 29-year-old Edward Snowden, a tech specialist who was contracted for the NSA and works for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, leaked the details of a classified surveillance program to the media. As Christians debate the ethics of Snowden’s actions we should consider the question, “Under what circumstances can there be biblically justified ‘leaking’ or whistleblowing?”

the-guardian-whistleblowerWhat does being a “good neighbor” or a “Good Samaritan” (ala Luke 10) mean, obligation-wise, when it comes to warning others against possible harm? If I have accurate and true knowledge about a situation that could result – or has already resulted in – public (or semi-public) harm, do I have an obligation to report it?

While the Bible doesn’t spell out the ethical obligations in these specific situations, the literature on justified whistleblowing tracks closely with another set of criteria many Christians apply to one specific intersection of ethics, “neighbor-love” (what Augustine called ‘caritas’) and public order: the just war tradition.

There are two distinct categories in the just war tradition – jus ad bellum (justice before war; or justice when initiating a war)  and jus en bello (justice in war, or justice in the process of waging war) — both of which are applicable to questions of whistleblowing.

Jus ad bellum Considerations

Proper authority – Who has the right to initiate a conflict?

Just cause – Is the conflict being initiated to achieve a proper end?

Right intention – Am I initiating the conflict for the right (internal) reasons?  Public good or private hatred?

Macro-proportionality – Will the goal of this conflict be worth the evil/damage that will take place?

Last resort – Have I tried, to the extent possible, to achieve the proper end through peaceable means?

Probability of success – Is it even possible to achieve the proper end through military means successfully?

 Jus en bello Considerations

Discrimination – When I fight, am I fighting in such a way that I do what I can to ensure that those who should be protected, like women, children and the infirm, are protected?

Micro-proportionality – When I fight, do I use tactics that are out of line with my immediate operational objective?

Ethicists who analyze whistleblowing (like Sissela Bok, Michael Davis, and Richard DeGeorge) tend to use similar categories to those found in just war theory. In order to overcome the hurdle of disloyalty to an employer or organization of which one is a member, these ethicists look at such questions as:

(a) Do you know that there is possible harm and/or moral wrongdoing going on? Or are you just trying to get back at someone? (just cause and right intention)

(b) Is this information something that you have reasonably direct knowledge about? (proper authority) Added to this, DeGeorge asks, “Is your continued work going to contribute to the wrongdoing you think will occur?”

(c) Have you exhausted all of your internal remedies (immediate supervisor and above)? (last resort)

(d) If you go public, will the “evil” you cause “prevent the [public] harm at a reasonable cost? [Davis]” (proportionality)

Other criteria based on oath-keeping may also needed to be considered. If someone has signed a non-disclosure agreement or, as with the case of Snowden, carries a security clearance, that person is under more stringent guidelines. In such cases, disagreement might require resignation, but continued silence. If public comments are made, they should be done with the understanding that it could very well result in harm to others, prosecution, and jail time.

In this particular case, my view is similar to that of James Carafano, author of  a book on Washington’ s use of contractors, Private Sector, Public Wars:

We have to separate the leaking of the material, which is simply wrong, from concerns about the program itself. Surveillance for threats can be done legally; however, it is impossible to tell from press reports and government talking points alone if the program was administered properly. That said, individuals who suspect wrongdoing in government have legitimate options to bring it to the attention of responsible individuals in government and Congress without breaking the law.

Setting aside the questions around the NSA’s surveillance, do you believe Snowden’s actions were biblically justifiable?

[Note: Portions of this post on the general issue of ethics and whisteblowing came from draft material and discussions with adjunct professor of government at Patrick Henry College, Brian J. Auten, who has given me permission to use it.]

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Marie Roth

    We are under the authority of a Constitution, not a king.

    Our Constitution is being hideously violated.

    Godspeed Mr. Snowden.

  • Suggesting he go up the chain of command when that very chain of command is the source of this violation of our rights is naive at best. He did the right thing. Far better to take it to the fourth estate. Perhaps they’ll begin doing their job again and stop being cheerleaders for this administration. When the government breaks its own laws, one is under no obligation, biblical or otherwise, to keep quiet about it.

  • Saucy

    Doing what you believe to be the right thing, aiding your fellow humans, even if it violates the written code that you are obligated to honor? I think Mark 3:1-6 might have something to say about that.

  • Judyallbrite

    “That said, individuals who suspect wrongdoing in government have legitimate options to bring it to the attention of responsible individuals in government and Congress without breaking the law.”

    Do we really have legitimate options? Responsible individuals in government and Congress? Who can we trust in government to do the right thing without taking this directly to the people?

    • dwduck

      There are Republicans on the Congressional oversight committees, right? So there’s at least potential. It doesn’t appear he ever tried.

      And he didn’t bring it to “the people” — not the American people, or even the American press, anyway. He brought it to the British press. I think that speaks volumes.

      • Judyallbrite

        What gives you the impression that Republicans would come to his aide?

        I think it speaks more about the American press than anything, and perhaps how they were bullied into not reporting this story.

        • dwduck

          I’ve been hearing for years that Congressional Republicans are obstructionist and racist and out to get Obama. (Like that obstructionist racist Issa, who’s currently tearing the IRS a new one for presumably obstructionist and racist reasons.) If that’s true, seems like this is something they’d eat right up.

          Have you seen anything suggesting this guy did anything besides running straight to a video camera in a foreign country? I haven’t. To me, this guy seems far more Bradley Manning than Daniel Ellsburg.

  • Deep Harm

    The “legitimate options” claim is false. Every national security whistleblower I read tried the “legitimate options” before going public. While they were pursuing the “legitimate options,” their bosses were trying to destroy their careers. Seeing no meaningful effort to address the problems, those people went public, out of desperation.

  • I think whistleblowing can be biblically justified. We whistleblow in churches to expose false religions and false teaching. This is just. And we ought to whistleblow on the State because the State has the power to commit worse crimes, such as mass murder. I think there is a time to “leak” documents, and Snowden has done well. Here is a Reformed libertarian’s take on Edward Snowden:

  • dwduck

    Nope, not even close. I’m just attempting to point out some of the glaring contradictions in the “whistleblower” narrative.

    • Judyallbrite

      You didn’t answer my original question.

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