Edward Snowden: Privacy Hero or Dangerous Traitor?

When Edward Snowden leaked thousands of NSA intelligence documents in 2013 he triggered an international debate: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? 

Russia's decision to grant Snowden Russian citizenship in September 2022 has rekindled the war of words.

Richard Ledgett, former deputy director of the NSA, has called Snowden’s leaks ‘inappropriate’. “He put people’s lives at risk in the long run,” Ledgett said. “I know there’s been a lot of talk by Edward Snowden and journalists who say the things disclosed did not put national security or people at risk. That is categorically not true. They actually do.”

A 2016 report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that “the public narrative cultivated by Snowden and his allies is rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions” and that “the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests - they pertain instead to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.”

Snowden's Tweeted response to the Committee's findings? "After three years of investigation and millions of dollars, they can present no evidence of harmful intent, foreign influence, or harm. Wow.”

The former CIA employee has become an unlikely poster boy for privacy campaigners, however. His defenders included journalist Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian reporter who first published documents provided by Snowden that detail the NSA PRISM program to monitor the phone calls and emails of US citizens. "Every time there's a whistleblower - somebody who exposes government wrongdoing - the tactic of the government is to try and demonize them as a traitor," Greenwald told ABC News.

In 2020, Snowden said that he and his wife were applying for Russian citizenship to ensure they would not be separated from their Russian-born son in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns and closed borders. It was granted in 2022.

Edward Snowden: Privacy hero or dangerous traitor?
Edward Snowden was granted Russian citizenship in 2022

Edward Snowden: Privacy Hero or Dangerous Traitor? 

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Caroline Byrne
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When Edward Snowden leaked thousands of NSA intelligence documents in 2013 he triggered an international debate: Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? 

Russia's decision to grant Snowden Russian citizenship in September 2022 has rekindled the war of words.

Richard Ledgett, former deputy director of the NSA, has called Snowden’s leaks ‘inappropriate’. “He put people’s lives at risk in the long run,” Ledgett said. “I know there’s been a lot of talk by Edward Snowden and journalists who say the things disclosed did not put national security or people at risk. That is categorically not true. They actually do.”

A 2016 report by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that “the public narrative cultivated by Snowden and his allies is rife with falsehoods, exaggerations, and crucial omissions” and that “the vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with programs impacting individual privacy interests - they pertain instead to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.”

Snowden's Tweeted response to the Committee's findings? "After three years of investigation and millions of dollars, they can present no evidence of harmful intent, foreign influence, or harm. Wow.”

The former CIA employee has become an unlikely poster boy for privacy campaigners, however. His defenders included journalist Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian reporter who first published documents provided by Snowden that detail the NSA PRISM program to monitor the phone calls and emails of US citizens. "Every time there's a whistleblower - somebody who exposes government wrongdoing - the tactic of the government is to try and demonize them as a traitor," Greenwald told ABC News.

In 2020, Snowden said that he and his wife were applying for Russian citizenship to ensure they would not be separated from their Russian-born son in the midst of the pandemic lockdowns and closed borders. It was granted in 2022.

Edward Snowden: Privacy hero or dangerous traitor?
Edward Snowden was granted Russian citizenship in 2022
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Whistleblower or criminal?

James R. Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence (DNI), initially denounced Snowden’s whistleblowing as ‘reckless’ in June 2013, saying the leaks had done "huge, grave damage" to US intelligence capabilities.

Months later, however, Clapper accepted that Snowden may have done a public service by starting a healthy debate about the balance between privacy and security.

"As loath as I am to give any credit for what's happened here, which was egregious, I think it's clear that some of the conversations that this has generated, some of the debate, actually probably needed to happen," Clapper said, according to The Los Angeles Times. "It's unfortunate they didn't happen some time ago, but if there's a good side to this, that's it."

Within two years, the US Patriot Act was amended to prevent the NSA from bulk collecting phone records in a victory for privacy advocates.

In 2020, the NSA surveillance program Snowden exposed was ruled illegal by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judges found that the warrantless telephone dragnet that hoovered up millions of Americans’ telephone records without their knowledge violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and may have been unconstitutional.

“I never imagined that I would live to see our courts condemn the NSA’s activities as unlawful,” Snowden tweeted after the 2020 ruling.

The Appeals Court judgment didn’t clear the way for Snowden to return to the US, however. He remains a fugitive from US justice in Russia, where he fled after leaking NSA intelligence. 


Edward Snowden: Privacy hero or dangerous traitor? Some demonstrators hold thank you signs while others believe he is a traitor.
Edward Snowden: Hero or traitor?

Spy tradecraft

The Snowden story is steeped in modern tradecraft. He used complex operational security, psyops, signals intelligence, social engineering, and encryption during his time with the CIA and later as an NSA contractor, then applied his skills to effectively extract and leak classified documents from them. From pre-assigned codewords and secure messaging apps to Rubik's cubes and ‘security blankets’, there was no shortage of fascinating tradecraft at play.

Glenn Greenwald initially ignored Snowden's step-by-step guide on how to secure his email communications. Frustrated, Snowden then contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras, who applied more acceptable encryption. Eventually, Snowden delivered documents to both and arranged to meet them in a Hong Kong Hotel.


Snowden: 'I don't want to live in a world where creativity and love is recorded'

Snowden instructed Greenwald and Poitras to meet him in a specific district (Kowloon), at a specific place (a shopping mall with large crowds). He told them to wait until they saw a man carrying a Rubik's cube, then ask him about a restaurant in the mall.

Snowden allowed Greenwald and Poitras to question him for a week in his hotel room. The first article, titled NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers, was published on June 6, 2013, by Greenwald in The Guardian. It immediately became worldwide news.

“I don’t want to live in a world where every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded,” Snowden had told the journalists. “That’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can.”

Edward Snowden: Privacy hero or dangerous traitor? Snowden has continuously addressed the US public through online talks and newsletters
Snowden faces prison if he returns to the US

Snowden: On the run

In June 2013, Snowden checked out of his Hong Kong hotel and fled. His plan was to fly to Moscow, then on to Cuba, and finally Ecuador, where he would seek asylum. The US government annulled his passport on the first leg of this journey, however, trapping him in the Moscow airport.

Russia offered Snowden asylum, which the US condemned. According to a May 2013 criminal complaint, the American government charged Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917 with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

The charges against Snowden haven’t deterred more US government whistleblowers from coming forward, however. Daniel Hale, who leaked classified information about drone warfare intelligence to the press, was charged under the Act as was Chelsea Manning, a former US Army intelligence analyst who provided WikiLeaks with hundreds of thousands of classified documents.

Reality Winner, who leaked classified NSA information about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, was sentenced to more than five years in 2018 after passing top-secret documents to a news website. She was released early in 2021.

Much like Snowden, there is ongoing debate as to whether Hale, Manning, and Winner are heroes, traitors, or possibly a bit of both. 

Whistleblower or criminal?

US federal law broadly protects whistle-blowers with one exception, employees who are privy to the nation's secrets, said Professor Richard E. Moberly of the University of Nebraska College of Law.

"The definition of a whistle-blower depends on the context," he said. "Outside of national security we tend to think very broadly. [Whistle-blowers expose] not only illegal activity, but abuses of power, fraud, financial misconduct, and even unethical choices."

But employees entrusted with state secrets "should be more limited in how and what to disclose," he said.

Under US law, intelligence employees have their own system to report activity they believe violates the law or is unethical. Employees are instructed to report wrongdoing to Congress, or up their chain of command, to the Director of National Intelligence, or to their agency's inspector general, Moberly said.

Edward Snowden looks down in this photo taken for the Citizenfour documentary

The unending debate

Snowden, who has lived in Moscow since 2013, is now a household name worldwide. He has won numerous awards including ​​the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties in 2020. He was also nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

Snowden boasts more than 5m Twitter followers and regularly speaks about privacy issues via satellite interviews. His revelations and thoughts about privacy and security are never far from the headlines, stoking fear and incredulity.

“What I took away from reading the Snowden documents was that if the NSA wants into your computer, it’s in. Period,” cryptographer Bruce Schneier said in Gordon Corera’s book Intercept.

Eric Holder, former US Attorney General of the United States, credits Snowden for starting a public debate on privacy but has previously said that he’d still punish him: “He broke the law. He caused harm to our national security and I think that he has to be held accountable for his actions.”

Edward Snowden has not sought a Presidential pardon, although others have done so on his behalf. He plans to remain abroad until his one condition is met: “My condition for return is simply a fair trial.”

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