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Edward Snowden – Hero or Traitor?

By Rachel Segal
 Photo by Random Institute on Unsplash
*Updated 2024
Ever since Edward Snowden leaked documents containing classified US intelligence in 2013, he’s been called both a traitor and a hero. While some believe he was heroic for showing Americans that their government was illegally spying on them, others maintain that what he leaked and the way he did so prove his motives were far from patriotic. A gripping memoir by Snowden provides insight into his motives in addition to elevating his status as a pop culture icon.
Here are three arguments why Edward Snowden is a hero and three why he’s a traitor.


Edward Snowden is a Hero


His revelation of illegal US government activity sparked a global debate.

Edward Snowden leaked documents that showed the existence and shocking extent of a global mass surveillance system that the US government used to spy on the personal communications of millions – if not hundreds of millions – of Americans and foreign citizens with no links to terrorism. This system included private emails, phone conversations, web histories, etc. – all without consent or court warrants. Snowden’s decision to share this information consequently prompted a global debate over surveillance techniques and protecting citizens’ privacy. This, in turn, resulted in the US government passing laws for the first time in decades restricting government surveillance. As part of the far-reaching consequences of Snowden’s actions, technology companies like WhastApp and Apple have also done more to encrypt and protect users’ personal information.  None of this would have happened without Snowden.


He acted responsibly with the leaks.

Snowden acted responsibly when he revealed that the NSA’s surveillance program was unconstitutional. He was careful in not leaking any details about the algorithms that the NSA used in its operations. Nor did the leaks reveal the identities of the groups or individuals that the agency had targeted or the US agents involved. The leaked data also didn’t contain any details of US military plans or conversations between US or foreign officials.  Therefore, Snowden’s leaks added value without doing any harm to US national security, unlike the 2016 WikiLeaks data dumps.


He paid a steep price to defend civil liberties.

Snowden’s decision upended his life and career. He risked his own freedom to bring information into the public domain about the US government endangering its citizens’ civil liberties. Even former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who believes Snowden is a traitor, admitted that he “performed a public service.” He knew acting upon his conviction to uphold the sanctity of American values would force him into a life on the run, but he leaked the information anyway. enough changed for the good since Snowden’s act of courage?


Edward Snowden is a Traitor


The way he leaked the information was dubious.

If Snowden had been a patriotic whistle blower, he would have first found legal avenues for his pursuit in reigning in the NSA. For instance, he could have appealed to members of Congress, who are elected to represent the American people. Instead, he went straight to largely foreign journalists and newspaper editors and burdened them with the responsibility to decide which of the stolen documents should be kept secret and which should reach the public domain. Snowden may have argued that he was acting nobly, but it was actually careless, as journalists and their editors aren’t qualified to decide such legal matters, especially when their interests are about selling newspapers, not protecting U.S. national security.


He damaged US foreign relations

Contrary to Snowden’s claim about wanting to stand up for his fellow Americans, the information he leaked actually created more harm than good. The majority of the information that he shared is about the U.S. spying on foreign nations and not its domestic operations. As such, he risked damaging America’s relationship with foreign countries. By doing so, Snowden not only undermined U.S. alliances around the world but also U.S. efforts to undermine enemies that operate in countries where citizens have less ability to protect themselves from tyranny. If he had been a true patriot interested in protecting the American constitution, as he claims he is, he would have focused on collecting and leaking only the information that documented the NSA’s overreach in domestic spying operations.


A patriot believes in his cause enough to be willing to face the consequences.

If Snowden genuinely believed in the righteousness of his cause and actions, he would have been confident enough to remain in the United States and face the  consequences of stealing and leaking the NSA documents. Instead, he escaped to Hong Kong and then Moscow, where he still resides. His seeking refuge in these two countries suggests that their governments gained highly valuable information and insight regarding NSA operations.


The Bottom Line: While Edward Snowden illegally stole and leaked classified NSA documents, he sparked a global debate about surveillance that instigated the US government to change laws that better protect Americans’ right to privacy. However, his actions also endangered US foreign relations and revealed secrets to US enemies. Do you think he is a hero or traitor?

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