Is Edward Snowden a whistle-blower or a traitor?
Debate over the renegade computer technician who leaked thousands of secret National Security Agency documents is too often reduced to that deceptively simple choice.
But it's the wrong way to pose the question, because Snowden is both of those things at the same time. Yes, he's a whistle-blower, and if that were all he had done, he would deserve our thanks for forcing a debate over the NSA's swollen powers.
But he's also a scoundrel who deserves prosecution and public condemnation. That's because his leaks no longer seem focused on protecting U.S. citizens' constitutional rights or toughening safeguards on the NSA. Instead, Snowden's disclosures have expanded far beyond those laudable aims to exposing U.S. intelligence-gathering operations that appear not only legal but legitimate in the eyes of most Americans.
Here's a sampler of some questionable leaks by Snowden, based partly on a compilation by the estimable Fred Kaplan of Slate:
Documents showing that the NSA has vacuumed up emails to and from Al Qaeda members and their associates in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, leading in some cases to the "targeted killing" of the organization's leaders. Yes, there's a legitimate debate over targeted killing, but collecting intelligence on Al Qaeda is exactly what most taxpayers want the NSA to do.
Documents revealing NSA interception of computer traffic outside the U.S., including not only emails but also address lists, enabling intelligence agencies to look for links between terrorists and learn more about potentially hostile countries such as Iran.
Records documenting NSA tracking of cellphone users' locations outside the United States, an effort the Washington Post reported was aimed at identifying "unknown associates of known intelligence targets."
Documents showing the U.S. intercepted communications of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other foreign leaders — embarrassing, maybe even ill-advised, but political flaps, not scandals.
Records detailing classic overseas espionage, including U.S. eavesdropping on important targets in China, Russia and Pakistan. One Snowden-leaked document revealed that the United States has "ramped up its surveillance of Pakistan's nuclear arms," as well as biological and chemical weapons sites there. Anybody have a problem with that?
And there's still more to come, according to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who broke many stories about Snowden's data in Britain's Guardian newspaper. "There are a huge number of very significant stories that are left to report," Greenwald told an Israeli television station on Monday.
As a journalist who has worked to unearth government secrets, my sympathies are normally on the side of the leaker. But Snowden is putting those instincts to the test. He and Greenwald have insisted they are disclosing only information of legitimate public interest, but it's hard to find any careful lines on that list.
In any case, most of those disclosures, from Merkel to Al Qaeda, have nothing to do with Americans' right to privacy. Snowden has acknowledged that his ambitions go far beyond limiting what the NSA can do at home. "I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European or Asian," he told the Guardian in June.
Well, OK. But that makes him, by his own description, a global crusader against NSA spying anywhere, not merely a whistle-blower against potential abuses inside the United States. It means some of his disclosures have made Americans safer against government prying, but others have probably made us less safe.
And for a man who proclaims himself a fighter for universal rights, accepting asylum in Russia and praising his hosts for their devotion to freedom does not strengthen his claim to consistency, let alone nobility.
The New York Times has proposed that Snowden be granted clemency on humanitarian grounds. "Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight," the newspaper argued in an editorial. But we need time to assess whether he's done as much damage as intelligence officials claim. After all, he's the one who chose to go into exile. It makes sense for the government to offer a plea bargain, but Snowden and Greenwald sound as if they are bent on more disclosures, not legal deals.
Snowden doesn't fit the classic definition of a traitor; it's not clear that he intended to aid our enemies. (That's assuming he didn't give any data to his hosts in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong or to his current protectors in Russia, as he insists he didn't.) Even the Obama administration hasn't accused him of treason, although it has charged him with unauthorized disclosure of secrets under the Espionage Act. But he's not much of a hero either. He paints the world in black and white, arguing that public disclosure is good and the NSA is bad.
In real life Snowden, just like the NSA, falls into one of morality's all-too-common gray areas. He deserves credit for starting an important national debate, but he fully merits condemnation too.