Edward Snowden: Hero? Or Traitor?

You've probably heard by now that the man responsible for the NSA leaks of surveillance programs is a 29-year old high school dropout who was a contract worker for the NSA, Edward Snowden.

Snowden is being lionized by both left and right -- at least, those who are reacting emotionally to his revelations. They are, indeed, serious and dangerous. The potential to make the US 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.

But Snowden insists he did nothing wrong:

The man behind the largest leak of classified information in the history of the US National Security Agency (NSA) has chosen to make his identity public, despite the potential consequences for himself and his loved ones. Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and former CIA technical assistant, said he had never intended to remain anonymous. "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong," he said.

The revelation of Snowden's identity came after the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said on Sunday that he had asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into the leaks, telling NBC News, "It is literally gut-wrenching to see this happening, because of the huge grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities... this is a key tool for preserving protecting the nation's safety and security."

Snowden's revelations, which he leaked initially to Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, included the existence of a growing NSA stockpile of millions of phone records from the US public. According to the top secret documents, the Agency's PRISM programme also gives it "direct access" to files from the servers of major tech companies such as Google and Facebook. This vast data mining operation is supposedly designed to anticipate and prevent terror plots.

Yes, Mr. Snowden, you have done something wrong, as I pointed out in a Tatler post yesterday:

Is this really a whistleblower? Snowden swears he doesn't think he did anything wrong. Well, that's a bunch of hooey. Breaking the law is wrong. Breaking your oath of secrecy is wrong. Breaking the trust of your employer is wrong. If he really believed he did nothing wrong, he'd come back to the states voluntarily and see if a jury of his peers agreed with him.

They won't. They'll throw him in jail for the rest of his life. This is someone who obviously believes the ends justifies the means -- a curious position to take since the CIA and NSA make the same claim all the time. We may hate and fear the surveillance programs, but when you get right down to it, they're legal -- at least as far as the law stands now. The correct remedy is to change the law. How could we change the law if we didn't know the extent of the surveillance?

I'll get back to you on that.

I don't know the answer to that last question. If the question is should Snowden have leaked such closely held secrets, I would reluctantly answer "yes." But if you are going to deliberately break the law in a civil society, you must be prepared to accept the consequences. Snowden ran away from those consequences. That does not make him a hero in my book. It makes him a criminal. Why didn't Snowden leak the information and then turn himself in? That would have been heroic. Instead, despite his protestations that he doesn't want the story to be about him, he comes off as a glory hound, an attention getter.

If you belive the ends justifies the means, then the rule of law is meaningless. We've had administrations in the past use that excuse, as well as intelligence agencies and the military. Whatever good we think may flow from his criminal acts, we cannot justify them or applaud them - especially since we don't know if these revelations will prove to be catastrophic in the sense that they might facilitate a terrorist attack that may otherwise have been thwarted.

No easy answers. And the questions raised by Snowden's actions aren't a cakewalk either. But what's done is done - whatever his reasons and motivations. Let the law deal with Snowden while we debate what he has revealed and try to salvage a proper balance between surveillance and privacy.

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