Is Edward Snowden a selfless whistleblower, or a traitor?

The former NSA contractor says he did nothing wrong

The Hawaiian home where Snowden lived with his girlfriend.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Anita Hofschneider)

Former CIA computer tech Edward Snowden was living a dream life — a $200,000 a year job, sharing a home in Hawaii with his girlfriend — until he decided to leak top secret documents to expose the National Security Agency's sweeping telephone and internet spying programs. Snowden says the NSA surveillance threatens "our freedom and way of life," so he felt it was his duty to sound the alarm. Now, he's holed up in Hong Kong, and never expects to return home a free man.

Social media lit up Monday with posts hailing Snowden as a hero for sacrificing his cushy life to expose the snooping. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, says Americans owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for putting the cause of privacy ahead of his own self-interest. The Guardian, a British newspaper to which Snowden leaked top secret documents, says he "will go down in history as one of America's most consequential whistleblowers." But is Snowden really a hero?

For many commentators, there's no doubt that he is. Douglas Rushkoff notes at CNN that the easy thing for Snowden to do would have been acting like a robot and simply doing his job, and getting paid. But, Rushkoff says, Snowden chose to think about the implications of what he was doing — collecting data for a machine capable of gross violations of privacy — and "pressed pause" for the good of society.

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Snowden is a hero because he realized that our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe. Unlike those around him, who were too absorbed in their task to reflect on their actions and pause in their pursuit of digital omniscience, Snowden allowed himself to be "disturbed" by what he was doing. [CNN]

Praise for Snowden isn't exactly universal, though. Rick Moran at American Thinker, for example, suggests it is malarkey for Snowden to maintain that he did nothing wrong if he broke an oath of secrecy that he took willingly, and, in the process, broke the law by disclosing government secrets. Maybe Snowden was right to call attention to what the government was doing, Moran says, but it will be on his shoulders if the U.S. is hit with a terrorist attack that could have been thwarted.

The potential to make the U.S. a police state is great, as is a loss of any sense of privacy for the individual.

The potential is also there to head off terrorist attacks. And revealing these surveillance programs almost certainly gives terrorists who are paying attention a means to avoid detection. [American Thinker]

The case seems to amount to a political Rorschach test, says Ed Kilgore at Washington Monthly:

To most of those with a libertarian bent, left and right, it's a total no-brainer: Snowden is a great hero, and our overriding duty is to make sure he doesn't become a martyr...

Neo-connish Republicans, and somewhat more quietly, Democrats of a non-libertarian bent, tend to view Snowden as a narcissistic fraud who insinuated himself into a position where he could do the maximum damage to his country, knowing he'd have plenty of powerful or at least noisy allies when it all hit the fan. This point of view is likely to crystallize around demands that Hong Kong extradite Snowden to the United States for prosecution. [Washington Monthly]

All that said, it might be a bit early to be condemning or beatifying Snowden. Michael Moynihan says at The Daily Beast that both sides — from "Julian Assange fans and Ron Paul devotees" engaging in hero worship to the defenders of the Obama and Bush administrations — would benefit from a few deep breaths and "a small dollop of skepticism":

Even a generous reading of the programs exposed by Snowden should deeply trouble those of us who are skeptical of the ever-growing American security state. And even if the administration's explanations and justifications of the NSA's snooping programs are to be trusted — the program foiled terror attacks, was focused only on foreign nationals, and no calls were listened to, etc. — it nevertheless raises ethical and moral issues that demand further public debate, as Snowden said an interview with The Guardian.

But even after Snowden's disclosures, do we even understand what, exactly, the NSA is engaged in? As journalist J.M. Berger rightly points out, "the information we lack vastly outweighs the information we have. We should be cautious in interpreting data summaries we don't fully understand." [Daily Beast]

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