For those who have been hiding under a rock the last few months, Edward Snowden, formerly with Booz Allen Hamilton under contract to the CIA and NSA, leaked material showing the extent to which the US government gathers information on its citizens, and revealed such programs as PRISM, XKeyscore, and others. Former president Jimmy Carter defended Snowden, saying that while he broke the law, Snowden's actions would be beneficial to the United States in the long run. Former vice president Dick Cheney calls Snowden a traitor. A large national poll found that 54% view Snowden as a whistle-blower. One Washington Post writer called him a patriot. What do you, our readers, say? Is Snowden a hero? A traitor? Both? Neither? Email your comments to squaretwojournal@yahoo.com.


Full Citation for this Article: Editorial Board (2013) "Readers' Puzzle for Summer 2013: Edward Snowden--Traitor or Hero?," SquareTwo, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleReadersPuzzleSummer2013.html, <give access date>

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COMMENTS: 8 Comments

1) Boyd H. Bauer

Most Americans have a very poor sense of world history and American history, wishing to have every major crisis solved in roughly sixty minutes, with breaks for TV commercials or a trip to the kitchen for snacks, but that is not the way things work in the real world. If problem solving were simple there would be few lingering problems in the world, but the list seems to be growing longer.

            Even though while working in Iran military airfields engineering projects near the USSR border, I heard rumors that the CIA had orchestrated the 1953 coup to overthrow the democratically elected leader Mossadegh, I did not believe that the U.S. government would stoop so low. At that time I did not know that U.S. troops had intervened in the Russian civil war in 1917 and that the U.S. had a role in later regime changes, or attempts, elsewhere in 1949, 1954, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1963, and more. (See Wikipedia for summary). Transparency in government is a very important matter so when it is lacking; average citizens are hardly in position to be wise judges concerning which individuals were heroic in their actions and which individuals were not.

         The first answer which comes to mind on a multiple choice quiz in school may often be the correct answer but that is rarely the case in a complex world. Hence my answer is, as one who has lived in Iran and China, it is too soon to know with any certainty how history will, or we can, reach an accurate decision on Edward Snowden.


2) Stephen Cranney

In specific regard to the whistle blowing about the civilian surveillance program, if we replace “NSA” with “KGB” I don’t think my reaction to the Snowden leaks would be much different. The fact is, had this happened in an authoritarian regime, with an employee blowing the lid off a large domestic spying operation, virtually nobody would have anything negative to say about Snowden.

However, this attitude does not apply to other sensitive security material that he may have leaked. Admittedly, I don’t know about the Snowden specifics to make a firm judgment, but a state has the right to protect its legitimate secrets (and yes, there are legitimate state secrets, the Wikileak extremists who take the the transparency trope way too far notwithstanding). Especially if there are lives at stake, the government has the right to take appropriate (emphasis on appropriate--no torture) measures to protect its own self-interests. If Snowden’s leaks went above and beyond exposing the surveillance program to severely impinging on US security, then he is in fact a traitor.


3) Stan A. Taylor

As one of the two Senate staffers on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), I invested the better part of a year working on the original FISA Act of 1978. Some of what has been added over the years has, in my opinion, been good while much of it has been not so good. But I supported FISA in 1978 and, now that the National Security Letters have been banned, I still generally do support it. With that confession, I would like to make a few comments.

First, I do not accept that Snowden is a whistleblower. I will attach the whistleblower sign that hangs in many government offices at the bottom of my post, but, in short, a whistleblower is a person who reports government wrongdoing in the form of 1) a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, 2) gross mismanagement, 3) a gross waste of funds, 4) an abuse of authority, or 5) activity that seriously endangers public health or safety.

NSA surveillance activities can hardly be a “violation of any law, rule, or regulation”j or an “abuse of authority” since they have been supported by three presidential administrations, enacted, amended, and funded by every Congress, survived three court challenges, and vetted and supported by every Justice Department since 1978. Moreover, from my experiences on the SSCI up through 1985 (I know that is prehistory to some of you) the NSA briefed the two intelligence committees very thoroughly. I sat through many briefings by Admiral Bobby Inman while he was DIRNSA. My contacts and former students assure me that thorough briefings to the two committees have continued to this day.

As far as “mismanagement” goes, I consider the NSA bureaucracy to be one of the very finest in our government and have not seen accusations of mismanagement during this current crisis. Anyone I know who has worked for a while in Washington will attest that the intelligence agencies are probably the best managed agencies in the federal system.

Clearly, NSA operations are terribly expensive but that does not mean they are necessarily a “gross waste of funds.” I have always believed that both the NSA and the CIA could work more efficiently if their budgets were cut by at least twenty percent. But I also know several government departments, starting with DoD but including many others, whose budgets should be cut by something closer to thirty or forty percent.

The abuse of authority clause has been interpreted to be an abuse of authority by persons or groups of persons in the agency. It has not ever been applied to legal and valuable functions of any agency. And not even Snowden has argued that NSA activities are a threat to health or public safety.

In Snowden’s case, his principal argument has been that NSA activities are morally wrong and are conducted without adequate oversight thus denying American citizens of a knowledge of these activities. In the latter case, I know of no agencies who brief congressional committees more than the intelligence agencies. The briefing are usually classified and, thus, do not receive public attention. But I am wont to allow a person who, according to several sources, has deceived or lied to several of his previous employers decide that he knows more about what the American people should know about intelligence practices than duly elected and appointed individuals. I could name several legitimate NSA whistleblowers (William Binney, Thomas Drake, and others) who went public with classified information but never revealed actual details about programs. But, in my opinion, Snowden is a traitor, not a whistleblower.

In general, the activities about which Snowden revealed very sensitive information (PRISM, XKeyscore, and Tempora Internet surveillance programs) were approved by the White House, Congress, the Justice Department, the FISA Court, and other federal courts. The alleged listening to conversations of foreign state leaders is not illegal. It may be stupid or unwise or foolish, but it is not illegal. As much as we respect Merkel et. al., they are not protected by the Constitution. I’m holding judgment on this part of the episode until I have a better understanding of what went on. It is very possible that e-mails or phone calls of these foreign leaders were picked up by NSA, but whether they were viewed or listened to is a different question. Normally, if the meta-data revealed contacts with terrorist, I can imagine they were listened to, but I also find that ludicrous. If they were targeted interceptions, that may be stupid, but not illegal.

French, German, Spanish, and Brazilian responses to these allegations are amazingly disingenuous. All countries spy on the enemies and their allies. What was it Lord Palmerstone said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

France has illegally hacked into more sensitive industrial sites than any other nation save China. Germany has cooperated over and over again with US intelligence agencies and has been forewarned of imminent terrorist attacks than any other single nation save England (see, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-thomson/oh-by-the-way-germany-spi_b_4184047.html.) Information has recently been released that Brazil devotes much of its intelligence surveillance activities spying on the US.

I have gone on too long. I apologize. But I can’t hit send without one additional comment. After 9/11 the IC was widely criticized for being unable “to connect the dots.” Now that the IC has finally gotten in a position where they can connect the dots, it might come to naught because of the controversy surrounding the Snowden treason. As Paul Pillar has recently written, US intelligence appears to go through two cycles—something bad happens and the IC is criticized for not performing its duties. The other cycle occurs when, through leaks of classified information, the IC is criticized for being too effective and it makes changes the diminish some of its legal (but sensitive) operations. For example, DCI Deutch reacted to public and congressional criticism that the CIA was using foreign assets who “could not get a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” by issuing orders that brought about the loss of over half of agency assets around the world. That policy was not rescinded until the day after 9/11.

I could criticize the NSA more effectively than most journalists, but, overall, I think it is an extremely effective agency that follows closely the guidelines required by the law. When it discovers that something has happened in the agency that does not follow those guidelines (the minimization procedures, for example, it identifies those who made that mistake and applies appropriate discipline.


4) S. Matthew Stearmer

I think that the question of whether Edward Snowden is a patriot or a traitor hinges on two things; first, the nature of the actions themselves and second, on the way the actions were carried out. 

Regarding the nature of his actions, they actually tie into a debate that has been taking place for nearly 250 years. Edmund Burke was a British politician who felt that it was unwise to reject the good aspects of the current system in order to test uncharted theoretical ideas of the enlightenment and revolution era. He was not a conformist, but sought to change the system from within. Thomas Payne, on the other hand, was a revolutionary. Payne did not justify revolution for its own sake, but felt it was justified when the evidence suggested that the underlying premise of the established system was antithetical to the cause of freedom. From these two positions Burke helped reshape the British Monarchy into what we see today and Payne helped provide some of the rationale and energy behind the American and French Revolutions. 

From the vantage point of history it is difficult to say which was the better path. The British system of internal change, the French system of continuous revolution, and the US system of revolution followed by internal change have all led to roughly equal outcomes. The question at the heart of each path is not which is right so much as which is changing. The US experienced what they felt was a long train of abuses and provocative actions designed to destroy any hope for change. Because no change was forthcoming, the revolution was needed. A few years later the French faced a similar challenge, which was also met with revolution, but a sustainable system of replacing leaders within that system was not immediately established and only continuous revolution was seen as a viable way to enact change. As the UK began to reform, the progressive political arm found great resistance but it also succeeded in making great changes. No revolutions or civil wars were necessary once the leaders acquiesced to the necessity of reform. 

As with these events, the question regarding Edward Snowden then is two-fold: Is the current surveillance system in line with, or antithetical to, the the principles of our government, and is change possible within the bounds that have been set for these programs? In more detail, regarding the principles of government, is the surveillance system compatible with a free democratic government and with the principle that our government derives its power from the consent of the governed, or has the surveillance system turned the government into the granting authority of power and freedom for its citizens? Regarding change within the system, are there proper mechanisms to invite and induce change, and has there been any evidence of this change through the established channels, or is the only evidence of change occurring due to outside pressure? 

If surveillance and democracy of the people are compatible and change is happening within the system, then Snowden's actions are traitorous. If this level of surveillance is antithetical to our system of governance, and no change is happening within the current system, then Snowden's actions are patriotic. Personally, I do not see how the level of surveillance currently established by our government is compatible with the principles of our government where the people are sovereign and government is accountable to it. I also see little to no effort to reform the system despite many calls to do so. One could argue that since the Patriot Act was passed that things have been become worse rather than better. By this account, then, his actions were patriotic. 

Regarding how his actions were carried out, however, there are some complications. Snowden left the US and traveled with the documents to two countries which are frequently at odds with the United States. I am not in a position to judge the necessity of traveling to these countries. It is possible that there really was a threat on his life and that leaving was the only choice. It is also not clear to me that these documents were protected from access from those who would like to see harm come to the United States. And finally, it is not clear to me why Snowden did it. He has made several statements, but what I am looking for is something like that declaration of Independence where each case against the former ally is outlined. 

In this way I see Snowden's actions as necessary and patriotric, but I face a great deal of internal opposition to calling him a patriot. 


5) Erik Linton

If ignorance is bliss, then Edward Snowden is a national chagrin.

Edward Snowden’s actions beg a greater question than of whistleblower or patriot. It asks the age-old question of where the balance is between freedom and security, and what role the government plays in that balance. In Ronal Reagan’s 1985 Inaugural address he said, “government is not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we the people allow it to have.” William J. Clinton stated in his 1997 inaugural address that government must change. “We need a new government for a new century – humble enough not to try to solve all our problems for us, but strong enough to give us the tools to solve our problems for ourselves.” No matter which side of the isle you sit on, both parties can agree that an essential element of a government should be its people. When the balance between freedom and security is determined without the knowledge of the people, I believe that freedom is threatened. If a violation of privacy is made and I don’t know about it, has privacy been violated? I believe so. I’m not ready to say that Edward Snowden is a patriot, but I can say that I am less ignorant about how the scales of freedom and security are balanced because of him.


6) Thelma Young

Since the identity of Edward Snowden was revealed the focus has heavily been on the man himself, and has often ignored the weight of what he revealed. The media, as well as members of Congress went to town on finding the right reductive label – having endless discussions on the floors of the House and Senate as well as on cable news – is he a hero or a traitor. Washington Post's Matt Miller said he was a "celebrity waiting in Hong Kong for Diane Sawyer's call" and many members of Congress made comments similar to Senator Susan Collins when she called him “a high-school drop-out who had little maturity [and] had not successfully completed anything he had undertaken.”[1] I believe that the focus on what to call Edward Snowden takes away from the more important conversations we need to be having about the United State's use of widespread surveillance.
I fundamentally do not believe that the modern constructions of nation-states are inherently god-approved mechanisms. I believe that Christian doctrine is about the erasure of the other, and the Book of Mormon itself is a firm warning against the creation of polarizations between people. Therefore, I don't know I would call someone a traitor on the grounds of breaking national security. I believe the overly thrown around term of ‘national security’ has been a justification in much violence that has happened in history. Holding this loose idea of national security as the most important entity has furthered much destruction, discrimination and a violation of civil liberties.

In my opinion, the NSA surveillance system, and much of the United State's intelligence networks are much closer to the Gadianton robbers than Edward Snowden is. Secret mercenary armies, secret torture facilities, black budgets, extrajudicial killings - all of these have become more acceptable tools for our government. President Obama has had a shameful record on human rights and has supported many of these covert tools and has overseen them grow. [2]

From my research, Edward Snowden was a man following his conscience, who was more focused on what was ethical instead of what would give him power.

Even though I do not believe in the sanctity of nation-states I still live in a democratic society and one of the best responses I saw to the Edward Snowden case was an op-ed in the German newspaper Der Siegel by the German Justice Minister. In it he states, "We should remember that the strength of the liberal constitutional state lies in the trust of its citizens… These are precisely the tenets Germany adopted in 1949 from the tradition of the American Constitution of 1776 -- namely that in a free and open democratic process, it is important to avoid the impression that the protection of basic rights is not being taken seriously enough." I believe the government should focus less on retribution and name-calling Snowden and focus more on gaining back the trust of the American people. [3]

[1] http://www.politico.com/story/2013/06/edward-snowden-washington-reaction-92614.html#ixzz2mSm7ajvJ

[2] There are many reports and articles on these issues. Here’s is one though: http://www.thenation.com/article/176869/dirty-wars-continued-how-does-global-war-terror-ever-end

[3] http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/minister-leutheusser-schnarrenberger-criticizes-us-over-prism-scandal-a-905001.html


7) Anonymous, retired military officer and currently a US national security professional

Mr. Snowden is neither a patriot nor a traitor; he is a well-intended but wrong-headed zealot.  Having so asserted, fairness to Mr. Snowden demands a definition of these descriptors. 

Mr. Snowden is, by definition, a zealot.  Whether he is merely full of zeal or excessively so depends on assumptions whose elucidation is unnecessary here.  What is crystal clear to all fair-minded observers is that Mr. Snowden is very passionate about his cause and is, at least to that extent, a zealot.  Mr. Snowden is also well intended.  He identified a practice or set of practices concerning which he had moral scruples.  He felt that the morally responsible thing to do was not to ignore those scruples—and there is nothing blameworthy about one feeling the need to examine one’s circumstances on moral grounds. 

At the end of the day, however, Mr. Snowden is wrong headed.  The justice that Mr. Snowden sought and seeks to impose is a form of vigilante justice that does not comport with the ideals of free democratic society—the kind of society that Mr. Snowden ostensibly seeks to defend.  The well-known aphorism by Edmund Burke that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” does not apply in the case of Mr. Snowden.  A variety of vehicles for airing his concerns were available to him.  He could have appealed to his supervisory chain; he could have appealed to any number of federal inspectors general.  He even could have appealed directly to a member of Congress and have testified before a congressional committee.  Instead, he inexplicably conveyed secrets entrusted to his care—secrets that did not in any meaningful sense belong to him and for whose safeguard he received compensation—to foreign powers whose friendliness to the United States is at least questionable. 

Mr. Snowden claims that he objects to certain intelligence practices of the United States.  However, what his actions really betray is his objection to the democratic processes that serve as checks and balances—of which he did not avail himself—that are designed to safeguard the freedom of democratic society.  To be a true patriot requires a genuinely benevolent intent.  To be a traitor requires a specifically malevolent intent.  Mr. Snowden appears to have been motivated by neither.  Rather, if his self-reported allegations are true, he appears to have been consumed by a wrong-headed zealotry of felonious criminal proportion, for which he appears unwilling to face justice in the very democracy of which he is a self-styled defender.  

(The opinions expressed herein are the private views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Government.)


8) Valerie M. Hudson

It is very hard to classify Edward Snowden. One's judgment of him has to revolve around the veracity of his assertion that the system for reporting wrongdoing about the NSA "does not work . . . You have to report wrongdoing to those most responsible for it."

We have seen that same assertion in the issue of military rapes, where 40% of rapes have been perpetrated by those in the chain of command over the victims. It is clear the system for handling military rapes is not working, which is why new legislation has been proposed that would take justice out of the chain of command, or at least prevent commanders from overturning punishments. When we citizens understood the system was broken, we took action to fix it. But if we had never been told what the system was or how it actually worked, would we have been able to exercise our rights as citizens? Citizens needed to know the military justice system was broken with reference to the handling of military rapes before they could do anything to correct it.

Can the same be said of the system we have in place for reporting wrongdoing about surveillance? In the interview cited above, Snowden said he learned his lesson while working for the CIA year ago. When he discovered there was a vulnerability in the agency's software for personnel systems, first he was ignored, next he was told to drop it, and then when he proved the flaw existed, he was reprimanded--and the system was not fixed. Maybe Snowden had good reason to assert the system is broken.

These two paragraphs from the New York Times piece cited above are also worth considering:

[Snowden] argued that he had helped American national security by prompting a badly needed public debate about the scope of the intelligence effort. “The secret continuance of these programs represents a far greater danger than their disclosure,” he said. He added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.

“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”

One of our other commenters brings up the saying that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. But there's another way for evil to succeed--if good people have the faintest clue what evil people are doing. That cuts both ways--the NSA is tasked with figuring out what evil people are doing, and we are grateful to them for that. But the capabilities the NSA have amassed to do so make it very, very easy for its employees to do evil if they so desired (does anyone now remember the excesses of J. Edgar Hoover? Can you imagine a J. Edgar Hoover armed with the technologies the NSA now has?). The American people deserve to know what these capabilities are so that they can more effectively monitor their use and stop any shenanigans before they start.

While I am not sure what to call Snowden, as a citizen I am grateful to know about the capabilities my government has, and I will be insisting my elected representatives create an effective process for monitoring its use above and beyond what currently is in place.