Edward Snowden: Hero or Traitor

The United States of America is building a weapon

This weapon has the power to influence society, control entire groups of people, and justify the removal of freedoms. Information is power and there has never been more of it. Edward Snowden, the twenty-nine year old NSA employee who broke the law by releasing a vast majority of classified government information, is the hero of this story. While a debate in the legality of Snowden’s actions would certainly not move in his favor, there’s no denying that the release and transparency of the leaked information has caused widespread debate among Americans and the trust they have for their government. Edward Snowden’s courageous, and possibly deadly, decision to release classified information is not about the legality of his actions, but instead about the spirit of whistleblowing and the revelations that follow. Edward Snowden is a hero who has provided an entire nation with a debate that is transforming the country and the world.

Edward Snowden is a traitor

Or at least that is what some people say. The decision to call Edward Snowden a traitor is an easy one to make. As a simple argument, Edward Snowden broke the law. Classified information, without getting into the nature of the information, is valuable to the nation only under strict supervision. By releasing an unparalleled amount of classified information, Snowden broke the law and, some would say, is a traitor for the distrust he has displayed. However, it remains to be seen whether the revelation of these high-profile programs has harmed them or the nation in any way. Some argue that simple public knowledge of these programs compromises their ability to conduct themselves properly. From a national security perspective, this lacks persuasion as other nations hold similar capabilities. National security, of course, has never relied more on spying and cataloging the movement of entire groups of people. 

Klaus Fuchs, a member of the Manhattan Project that spawned the Atomic bomb, is a classic example of a traitor in the eyes of the public. Fuchs handed secrets about the Atomic bomb to Soviets shortly after World War II. However, there is a distinct line between Klaus Fuchs and Edward Snowden. Giving secrets to enemies and revealing information to the public are two separate acts with separate intentions, especially when the latter has extreme interest in the public and its wellbeing. Edward Snowden’s actions, while criminal in every respect, are set against larger criminal activity.

What is a true whistleblower?

Others take offense not because they agree with the NSA’s actions, but because Edward Snowden’s method of whistleblowing were not acceptable. A true whistleblower would have first pursued legal action against the NSA, such as reaching out to congressmen, who, of course, are elected to represent the public. While this is a nice thought, Snowden’s actions are understandable. As is the nature of whistleblowing, the fear of danger, repercussions, and elimination is a real threat. This is, as unfortunate a thought as it is, only magnified at the federal government level. Snowden could have taken alternative action, but what position would he be in and, more importantly, what position would the American people be in. Additionally, many believe that true whistleblowers believe enough in their cause to accept the punishment involved in the unlawful acts. Snowden’s immediate flee from the US suggests he wasn’t fully prepared to take on the cause in which he has invited. However, I believe that Snowden’s actions were intentional and thought through. By fleeing the country, Snowden has allowed himself to become the voice of the issue, instead of being caged away. Snowden and the media, as a result of his decision to leave the United States, allows the debate to be framed around the cause and not around his punishment. Last, the deposit of the unmeasurable amount of data is often called into question. Snowden has publicly stated that he did not see himself fit to decide what information to present to the public, instead choosing to hand it over in bulk to the news, many of which were not domestic news sources, according to The Diplomat. An ordinary person shouldn’t have that power or be so irresponsible in releasing classified information. Having described himself as an “ordinary person”, Snowden’s actions appear irresponsible in their attempts. However, where would freedom of the press be without the Edward Snowden’s of the world? This is not to say that all information should rightfully be dispersed through the press, but in cases with similar importance to the public as this, the press is in place to check the power of the government. 

Edward Snowden is a hero

Regardless, Edward Snowden is not a traitor. Edward Snowden is a hero. Simply, while his actions are unlawful, not all criminal acts are explicitly “wrong”. In the case of Snowden and the information leaked, there are two questions to ask:

  1. Did Snowden act as a whistleblower should?
  2. Did the results create enough value to the general public to justify his actions?

While the first question speaks more to the emotional understanding of what a whistleblower is, the affects of blowing the whistle are far more relevant to the debate. Snowden is a whistleblower who embodies the characteristics we expect from a whistleblower; he disclosed facts that may actually lead to significant policy change and public debate. The true essence of a whistleblower is someone who is not concerned with the law, following orders, or appeasing to those in immoral positions, but instead fighting for what protects the rights of the American people. Historically, following the leader and the law has not always resulted in morally accepted behavior. In pursuing legal actions, whether through more noble means such as congressmen and the court, Snowden’s efforts may not have seen the light of day. This is precisely the reason why whistleblowers like Snowden do what they do, because those in power, willing or not, are often unable to make change happen (congress). The chain of command does not always welcome disruption, as they are either complicit in the wrongdoing or exhibit no willingness to make a change. When the debate is boiled down, the freedoms and rights of the American people belong in public forum and not in secrecy.

NSA vs The Constitution 

More importantly though, were the actions of the NSA and the American government constitutional? Many say no. Included in this group is U.S. District Judge Richard Leon who ruled the NSA is acting against the constitution.

I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval.
— U.S. District Judge Richard Leon

The Fourth Amendment “prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.” To add salt to the wound, many knowledgable participants continue to lie and manipulate perception about the actual activities being conducted. Why is it that we value this amendment so much, yet our activity online does not get the same treatment? Certainly the actions of the NSA do not take into account the Fourth Amendment and specifically target its original purpose. Our online self is an extension of who we are, including incredibly valuable and powerful meta-data. This data is the who, what, and why of our actual, physical existence. “Fighting terrorism” is not a lawfully justifiable way of writing off these actions and programs.

As for whether Snowden should be allowed amnesty, professor Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet Society at Harvard, argued the case for his pardon. "There is a law, but the law is always affected by politics and judgment," he said. "Clearly when someone opens up to the public a matter that is of such enormous public concern that it leads to such broad acceptance of the need for change and for reform, that person ought not come under the thumb of criminal prosecution.”

Trust us

The American people do not owe, nor will they ever owe, the government their trust. This is not to say that trust is not involved in this relationship, but that when called to question the motives and policies that are carried out by the government, secret or not, trust is not a relevant factor up for debate. 

‘Trust us’ is no way to run a self-governed society.
— Geoffrey Stone

Any opinion to the contrary serves only to harm the American people. The threat of national security plays on fear to avoid the scrutinization and analysis of modern power. Simply, modern power capitalizes on data for a variety of potentially harmful manipulations. But is this inevitable? Can we stop big data? Should we? The answer most certainly is no, but the difference between private and public data is both in scope of manipulation and freedom of choice. Private third-party data forcefully taken by the government is putting all of the American people’s eggs in one basket. Unless we say no, this mass-collection gives potentially harmful power to one single entity - an entity that holds our lives in its hands.

What is your opinion?

Edward Snowden may have broke the law in a manner that many would not consider to be noble and in the spirit of blowing the whistle, but the affects of his decisions are unquestionably significant to the interests of the American people. More importantly, the actions currently being taken by the NSA are not only coming to light, lie after lie, but are unconstitutional. The damage done through Edward Snowden is not at the fault of his actions, but are the result of the NSA and the American government’s failure to remain transparent during issues regarding constitutional rights of the American people.