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Patriotism and Conscience: The Edward Snowden Affair


The Edward Snowden case provides a good example of how the conversion of the federal government from a limited-government republic to a national-security state has warped and perverted the morals, values, principles, and consciences of the American people.

Snowden is the former NSA official who revealed the national-security establishment’s top-secret surveillance scheme to the American people and the rest of the world. Knowing that the national-security establishment would come after him with overwhelming force, possibly even to assassinate him, for disclosing its secrets, Snowden fled the country and ended up exiled in Russia after U.S. officials canceled his U.S. passport while he was en route to Latin America.

Since then, U.S. officials have attempted, without success, to secure Snowden’s extradition from Russia in hopes of putting him on trial and sending him to jail for life or even executing him under an anti-espionage law that, believe it or not, dates back to World War I. Some officials have accused Snowden of spying for the Russians, notwithstanding the fact that it was the U.S. government’s decision to cancel his passport while he was on his way to Latin America that caused Snowden to be marooned in Russia.

Notice something important about Snowden’s revelations. Despite all the hoopla that he had disclosed secrets relating to “national security,” the federal government is still standing. So is America. The U.S. government hasn’t been taken over by terrorists, Muslims, drug dealers, illegal aliens, or communists. Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam haven’t invaded and conquered the country. And America didn’t fall into the ocean.

The main thing that happened was the disclosure of illegal and nefarious dark-side activity on the part of the U.S. national-security establishment.

It was no different when WikiLeaks disclosed its mountain of national-security secrets several years ago. America continued to exist as a nation. So did the federal government.

Here’s the point: If the NSA were to be abolished today and if Congress were to order all of its documents and records to be released immediately to the public, nothing would happen to the United States. Nothing!

The same holds true for the CIA and the military-industrial complex. If all their files and records were to be suddenly disclosed to the people of the world, America would continue to exist as a country. It would not fall into the ocean, and the federal government would continue to operate.

In fact, full disclosure of all of the illegal and immoral actions that the U.S. national-security establishment has engaged in during the past 70 years of its existence would be the greatest and healthiest thing that could ever happen to the United States. Full disclosure of such secrets would be an antiseptic that would help cleanse the federal government and the country of many of the long-lasting stains that the national-security establishment has inflicted on it — an antiseptic that might finally begin to restore trust and confidence in the federal government among the American people.


To be sure, the secrecy is always alleged to be justified by “national security,” the two most important words in any nation whose government is a national-security state. But what does that term mean? It has no objective meaning at all. It’s just a bogus term designed to keep nefarious and illegal actions secret.

But heaven help those who reveal those secrets to others. They will be persecuted, prosecuted, vilified, condemned, exiled, or murdered. Nothing matters more to a national-security state than the protection of its secrets. Those who reveal them must be made examples to anyone else who contemplates doing the same thing.

In the process, conscience is suspended and stultified. It has no role in a national-security state. Individual citizens are expected to place their deep and abiding trust in the national-security establishment and to unconditionally defer to its judgment and expertise. Its job is to protect “national security” and that’s all that people need to know. Sometimes that entails illegal activity, such as murder, torture, and kidnapping, but that’s just the way it is. What’s important, they say, is that the national-security establishment is on the job, a perpetual sentinel for freedom, protecting “national security.”

Imagine that Edward Snowden voluntarily returned to the United States for trial. Do you think he would be given the opportunity at trial to show why he disclosed the NSA’s illegal and nefarious surveillance schemes? Do you think he would be entitled to argue that he was simply following the dictates of his conscience when he chose to reveal that information to the American people and the world?

Not on your life. The federal judge presiding in the case would rule that the exercise of conscience is not an affirmative defense in criminal prosecutions, including those relating to “national security.” He would rule that Snowden’s motive in disclosing the information was irrelevant and would instruct the jury to convict if they concluded that Snowden had in fact released national-security secrets.

If Snowden voluntarily returned to the United States, there is no doubt that he would spend much of the rest of his life in prison because the federal judiciary is not about to buck the national-security branch of the federal government. The latter is simply much too powerful.

And that’s if he’s lucky. If the national-security establishment decided to assassinate him as a terrorist, there is absolutely nothing anyone could do about it. That’s because the national-security branch, operating in conjunction with the executive branch, wields the omnipotent, nonreviewable power to assassinate anyone they want. The federal judiciary has made it perfectly clear that it will not interfere with or second-guess the president, CIA, or Pentagon when it comes to assassinations relating to national security.

A good example involves the case of Frank Olson, who worked within the U.S. national-security establishment during the Cold War. Stricken by a severe case of conscience as a result of participating in MKULTRA, the super-secret CIA medical experimentation program that would have fit perfectly in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Olson made the grave mistake of disclosing the program to someone else. Since he and his elevated sense of conscience obviously constituted a grave threat to national security, Olson was drugged with LSD without his knowledge and later assassinated under the guise of a suicide. (See A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War, by H.P. Albarelli Jr.)


Let’s consider some of the national-security state’s secrets and what they have done to warp and pervert the moral, values, and principles of the American people.

Consider Cuba. Ever since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, the U.S. national-security state has been driven to oust him from office and replace him with a U.S.-approved dictator, such as the one whom Castro ousted from power, Fulgencio Batista. The national-security establishment’s regime-change operations in Cuba have included assassination, invasions, sabotage, and terrorism. Through it all, Americans have been inculcated with the belief that all this activity is good, moral, honorable, and legal on one basis alone: that Castro is a communist who has established a communist system in Cuba.

That’s it! Notice something important here: No matter how revolting the communist philosophy might be to people, the fact is that Cuba has never attacked the United States. It has never invaded the United States. It has never assassinated any U.S. official. It has never committed acts of sabotage or terrorism against the United States. It has never imposed an economic embargo against the United States.

Instead, it’s always been the other way around. It has always been the U.S. national-security establishment that has been the aggressor against Cuba. The CIA secretly organized a paramilitary invasion of the island. The CIA also entered into a partnership with the Mafia, one of the top criminal organizations in the world, to assassinate Castro. The Pentagon proposed to John F. Kennedy a secret plan called Operation Northwoods, which entailed terrorist attacks and plane hijackings carried out by secret agents posing as Cubans, in order to provide a pretext for a war with Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was induced by Cuba’s desire to deter a Pentagon regime-change operation against Cuba, the Pentagon and the CIA demanded that Kennedy invade Cuba even if it meant all-out nuclear war against the Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, a Cuban airliner was bombed out of the air by anti-communist terrorists soon after taking off from Venezuela on its way home to Cuba. Victims included the members of Cuba’s fencing team. To this day, Venezuela has demanded the extradition of the man they accuse of committing the bombing, a man named Jose Posada Carilles. To this day, U.S. officials have steadfastly refused to honor the extradition request, notwithstanding the fact that there is an extradition treaty between the two nations.

There were also the acts of sabotage and terrorism within Cuba by people operating on behalf of the U.S. national-security state, acts that destroyed property and took the lives of innocent people.

By any objective measure, all that is immoral, dark-side activity.


I would be remiss if I failed to mention something else: None of this illegal, dark-side activity is authorized by the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land that delineates the powers of the federal government. That means that every act of assassination, invasion, sabotage, terrorism, and other dark-side activity that the U.S. national-security establishment has inflicted on Cuba has been illegal under our form of constitutional government.

Nonetheless, in the minds of all four branches of the federal government — the executive, judicial, legislative, and national-security branches — all of those moral and legal considerations are irrelevant and immaterial. All that matters is the judgment of the national-security branch, whose responsibility within the governmental framework is to protect national security.  If it determines that a foreign regime must be removed and replaced with another one, that’s the end of the matter. The citizenry are expected to come on board and support their government. Those who don’t are considered traitors who hate their country.

Snowden, of course, isn’t the only one whom they’ve gone after for disclosing the secrets of the national-security state. Chelsea Manning, who revealed the WikiLeaks records, will now be spending much of the rest of her life rotting away in a federal penitentiary for following the dictates of her conscience.

Don’t forget that they also went after Daniel Ellsberg for revealing the Pentagon Papers to the American people. Those were the documents in which the Pentagon confessed it was lying about the progress of the Vietnam War, a war that took the lives of some 58,000 American men and millions of Vietnamese. Like Snowden, the national-security establishment and its acolytes considered Ellsberg to have betrayed his country by revealing the national-security establishment’s nefarious, dark-side activity to the American people. In their view, Ellsberg should have deferred to the judgment of the national-security establishment and preserved its secrets, including their lies, even if that meant that the Vietnam War, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, would have continued indefinitely.

Several years ago, three Americans were sentenced to long terms in a federal penitentiary for disclosing U.S. national-security state secrets. Two of them were a husband and wife, Walter and Gwendolyn Myers. Walter Myers worked for the State Department. The other one was a woman, Ana Montes, who worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

An interesting aspect of their disclosures was that, unlike Snow-den, Ellsberg, Manning, and other U.S. whistleblowers who disclosed their information to the press, the Kendalls and Montes disclosed their national-security state secrets to the Cuban government.

It is not surprising that when they were caught and brought to trial, they were castigated and condemned by the federal judiciary for having betrayed their country by disclosing national-security state secrets to a foreign government.

What had motivated all three of them to do what they did? They claimed they did it out of a sense of conscience. They said they loved Cuba and the Cuban people and they didn’t believe that the U.S. government had any moral or legal authority to be inflicting harm on the Cuban people. So they decided to tell Cuban officials what the national-security establishment was doing to them and planning to do them.

Needless to say, none of that mattered to the federal judiciary. When it comes to the national-security state, conscience is irrelevant. The citizenry are expected to come on board with whatever the national-security state is doing, no matter how evil or immoral it is; in their eyes, it can never be evil or immoral because it’s U.S. officials who are committing the acts. Those who are working on the inside and who acquire classified information about national-security state activity are expected to keep it secret, no matter how dark, illegal, or evil it might be.

For example, let’s assume that the Kendalls or Montes learned of a plot by the CIA and the Mafia to murder Fidel Castro. They would be expected to keep it secret, even if the hit would be illegal under U.S. law and international law. If they instead decided to disclose the plot to the Cubans, they would be treated as spies who had betrayed their country, notwithstanding the fact that they had prevented an act that, by any objective standards, constituted outright murder.

Several years ago, the Cuban national-security establishment (yes, Cuba is a national-security state too, just as North Korea and China are) secretly sent five agents into Miami to ferret out terrorist attacks against Cuba that were originating within the United States. After they were caught by U.S. officials, they were criminally prosecuted and sentenced to long jail terms as spies. Under U.S. national-security state doctrine, no nation has the right to protect itself from assassination, terrorism, sabotage, and embargoes inflicted by the U.S. national-security establishment.


Not only has the national-security state perverted morals and values, it has also warped the concept of patriotism. Genuine patriotism encompasses taking a stand against the wrongdoing of your own government. That’s what the Declaration of Independence was all about — a group of English subjects taking a stand against the wrongdoing of their own government. It’s what the White Rose group in Nazi Germany was all about — taking a stand against the wrongdoing of their own government.

The conversion of the federal government to a national-security state turned that notion upside down, at least for national-security statists, who hold that a citizen has the solemn duty to unconditionally and blindly come to the defense of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA, no matter what they are doing, because whatever it is they are doing — murdering, kidnapping, torture, bribery — they’re doing for national security. They are keeping Americans safe from the enemies that their policies are producing.

As Edward Snowden and others who have worked within the bowels of the national-security branch of the government have learned, the national-security patriot is expected to keep the secrets of the national-security establishment, especially the dark ones, such as assassinations, kidnappings, bribery, and torture, and secret surveillance schemes such as those carried out by the NSA.

Last fall, in conjunction with the release of Oliver Stone’s movie Snowden, there was a concerted drive to have Snowden pardoned by Barack Obama, in large part because of the fact that much of the worldwide surveillance scheme that he revealed was illegal and constituted a grave infringement on people’s privacy.

The “pardon Snowden” movement encountered the predictable response from acolytes of the national-security establishment, including those in Congress and the mainstream press. They said that Snowden was a traitor, a man who hated and betrayed his country. They insisted that Obama deny the pardon request. They continued to maintain that Snowden should voluntarily return to the United States and face trial.

But the acolytes of the NSA and the rest of the national-security establishment are wrong. In fact, it’s not Snowden who needs pardoning. The ones who need pardoning are those who made the United States into a national-security state, those who continue to operate it, and those who keep it in existence. They are the ones who have betrayed our country. They are the ones who are the criminals.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.