Snowden, Lerner, and the Sin of Bearing False Witness

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Two government acronyms are forever tainted by scandal. First, the revelations of malfeasance and corruption within the IRS destroyed whatever last remnants of goodwill that agency might have had with the American people. Second, we have learned more recently learned that the NSA has been watching every breath we take and every move we make for several years now under the Obama Administration’s vast expansion of wiretapping under the increasingly inaccurately named Patriot Act. However, in both cases, the people who made these abuses public are still not being entirely truthful with us.

Every single day, Every word you say, Every game you play, Every night you stay, I'll be watching you.

Every single day, Every word you say, Every game you play, Every night you stay, I’ll be watching you.

Lois Lerner staged a question from the audience at an otherwise un-newsworthy conference of the American Bar Association on a Friday afternoon in the hopes of minimizing the damage of the IRS scandal, but the truth that is still emerging even now is so damning that by the following Monday morning, the entire Fourth Estate had taken notice. Unlike so many other scandals, even commentators from the far Left realized that this was not going to go over well with the American people. Then, when called to testify before Congress, Lerner availed herself of the Constitutional protection against self-incrimination—apparently having finally found some use for that august document.

Edward Snowden released classified documents to a foreign newspaper in a breach of a position of trust, and according to some accounts, he exaggerated the scope and the powers of the secret government program that he revealed. Snowden is a fugitive from the law, so he has not yet been questioned under oath, but his account to the Guardian of his own career and of the PRISM program have raised questions about his forthrightness. It is worth noting in passing that despite their initial shock and outrage, the liberal press have not held Lois Lerner to this level of scrutiny, much to their discredit.

There is of course a big difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion. Bearing false witness in the former is a felony but carries no penalty in the latter aside from damage one’s personal reputation. Since both Lois Lerner and Edward Snowden were both obscure government workers prior to these scandals, the loss of reputation amounts to no punishment at all–at least not in this world. We can hope that they will someday come clean with a full and accurate accounting of everything they know, but as it stands, it is hard to take at face value Lerner’s claim that she was just doing her job or Snowden’s claim that he was acting out of some patriotic duty.

By selectively providing only partial details–and in the case of Snowden, overstaing his own accomplishments–both have inserted their own judgement of what information serves the public interest and thus opened themselves up to a critical examination of their veracity. Unfortunately, Lois Lerner’s actions give the appearance that she is trying to hide something while Edward Snowden is in fact living in hiding. Instead of being forthcoming, both have to some degree hidden parts of the truth and likely invented other details, giving rise to rumors, speculation, and additional layers of misinformation. This is the theological definition of scandal and although it is not illegal, it is certainly unethical. Furthermore, the sin of omission is just as grave as the sin of commission.

Circle VIII, Bolgia 10 where falsifiers afflicted by leprosy are constantly clawing at each others' skin

Circle VIII, Bolgia 10 where falsifiers afflicted by leprosy are constantly clawing at each others’ skin

We may never know the full truth that is obscured by their apparent dishonesty, but the supreme judge of the universe who knows all and sees all will hold them to account. God has made clear His feelings on the subject. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Google search (which may or may not be monitored by the NSA) “is Edward Snowden a traitor” returns over 8,000 results, but the answer makes little difference. In Dante’s epic poem describing his vivid envisioning of the torments of Hell, the traitors and the perjurers are next door neighbors.

Both the IRS and NSA scandals are inexcusable assaults on our most deeply cherished freedoms as American citizens. Lois Lerner and Edward Snowden both performed a service to their country by making these activities publicly known. However, it is by no means clear that their actions are honorable and that they are upholding their oath as public servants to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Moreover, the uncovering of these harmful programs does not absolve them of an obligation to be honest and truthful in their dealings with their fellow man. Quite to the contrary, by entering the public sphere, they must be held to the highest standards of honesty. It is sad and unfortunate that by all accounts, their public testimony falls far short of the standard required by a court of law: to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Joshua Bowman joined in full communion with the Catholic Church in 2010 after many years in the spiritual wilderness. He recently moved back to his beloved native Virginia from Columbus, Ohio with his growing family and writes on religion, politics, history, and geographical curiosities.

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