The NSA Leaks, Edward Snowden and the Ethics and Accountability of Intelligence Collection

Seumas Miller, Patrick Walsh

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedings/Edited volumeChapterScientific

1 Citation (Scopus)


US National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former NSA private contractor, have catapulted the ethics and accountability of intelligence gathering to the front pages of most major newspapers and media outlets. For more on this case, see Harding (2014). Here there are a range of interconnected ethical issues in need of analysis. Perhaps the most obvious is that of the privacy rights of US and other citizens. Moreover, there is the issue of the ethics of whistleblowing in this area: in the light of national security needs and NSA secrecy provisions, should Snowden have leaked these documents, and should the media have disseminated selected material leaked to them? Further, it is evident that post 9/11 the lines between domestic law-enforcement intelligence gathering and foreign intelligence gathering have become blurred, notably in the legal sphere. For example, under the provisions of the US Patriot Act, law enforcement agencies were arguably only subject to the wiretap provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and, as such, not subject to the normal and broader judicial controls operating in the criminal justice system. Nor is this blurring restricted to the legal sphere. Whatever the moral principles governing intelligence gathering in domestic law enforcement, they surely differ to some degree from those governing foreign intelligence gathering. Moreover, the phenomenon of international terrorist groups that perpetrate attacks on domestic soil muddies the waters; as a result, the specification of appropriate moral principles for the collection of intelligence in relation to such groups is problematic, as it is in other areas of counter-terrorism. This chapter explores these interconnected ethical issues in the context of the Snowden leaks. The issues are interconnected, since the arguments for and against Snowden’s leaking of NSA documents (and the subsequent press dissemination of parts of those documents) turn in part on the moral weight to be accorded to individual privacy rights versus that accorded to security post-9/11.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthics and the Future of Spying
Subtitle of host publicationTechnology, National Security and Intelligence Collection
EditorsJai Galliott, Warren Reed
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherRoutledge - Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781315743912
ISBN (Print)9781138820395
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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