Suppose you have taken a job with the U.S. national-security state. You pass a high-level background check that secures you a top-secret security clearance. It is explained to you that everything that you see or do in your new job is classified top-secret. You are advised that you can never mention or discuss anything you see or do with anyone, including your spouse.
You are asked if you agree to these terms, and you do. You sign a written agreement and a written oath in which you agree and solemnly swear to never reveal to anyone anything you see or do as part of your job. You are also reminded that federal law makes it a felony criminal offense to reveal any classified national-security secrets that you learn about in the course of your job.
After a period of time, you are taken to a top-secret U.S. military-CIA prison camp in Eastern Europe. You see tens of thousands of prisoners being held in this massive prison facility. It is explained to you that these prisoners are radical Muslims, people who have been engaged in planning terrorist attacks on the United States. You are then taken to a special wing of the facility, where you witness prisoners being brutally tortured to provide information regarding terrorism.
Then, you are taken to another wing of this top-secret facility, where you witness thousands of prisoners being systematically executed. It is explained to you that the president, in consultation with his national-security team, has determined that the war on terrorism necessitates a systematic extermination of people of Muslim faith, owing to the centuries-old war between Christianity and Islam. It is emphasized to you how important it is to keep this systematic extermination system top secret, so as not to incite the enemy. Already, you are told, several hundred thousand Muslim enemies have been secretly exterminated in this top-secret operation.
What would you do upon your return to the United States? Would you remain silent and simply continue doing your job? Would you be supportive of the president and simply trust that he was doing the right thing? Would you write a memo to your boss expressing reservations you might be having?
Or would you go to the press and disclose what you saw, knowing that you were violating your oath, your employment contract, and federal law?
Undoubtedly, there would be some who would take the position that your oath and the law reign supreme. It would be manifestly wrong, they would argue, for you to break your promise and to violate the law, especially when you knew the conditions going into the job. They might say that it would be fine for you to work within channels to stop the Muslim extermination program, perhaps by writing a memo to your boss objecting to the program, but that it would be treasonous for you to reveal the program to the public.
Others, predominantly libertarians, would argue to the contrary. They would say that conscience reigns supreme over the oath and the law. If you concluded that a mass extermination program by the national-security state was morally wrong and if you concluded that the only way to bring it to a stop was to reveal it to the public, then libertarians would argue that that’s what you should do. In fact, libertarians would consider you a hero for choosing conscience over conformity, especially since your actions would be certain to incur the wrath of the national-security state, a wrath that would be visited upon you in terms of prosecution, incarceration, torture, or even assassination.
That’s the nature of the debate that is now playing out over the revelations by former NSA employee Edward Snowden. Sure, one can say that a massive secret federal surveillance scheme is not the same thing as a massive secret Muslim extermination program, but they’d be missing the point. The point is: What should a government employee who has taken an oath of secrecy do when he discovers grave wrongdoing at the hands of his own government, the government for which he is working? Should he comply with his oath and the law or should he obey the dictates of his conscience?
The Snowden controversy is highlighting one of the many major differences between libertarians (and a few principled civil-libertarian liberals and conservatives) and statists. Libertarians choose conscience over oaths and laws. Statists choose conformity to the state over conscience.