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Edward Snowden:  Whistleblower or Traitor?

It's been a while now so lot of people might not remember Edward Snowden. He made big international news back in mid-2013 -- news that consumed the headlines most of that summer. But he's been pretty much out of the headlines since.

Here I'll (re)introduce Snowden, discuss what he did that was so huge, then offer my opinion as is my wont.

Edward Snowden(*) was an NSA contractor who, in June 2013, leaked classified documents to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Those documents revealed and detailed massive surveillance programs run by the NSA (US),  the GCHQ (UK), and other members of the "Five Eyes"(*) intelligence partnership.

portrait of edward snowden

What was Surveilled

These surveillance programs far exceeded what ordinary citizens imagined that their governments might be up to. Here's a sampler:

  • The programs involved wholesale data collection from Google, Yahoo, and other email systems.

  • Monitoring of phone calls, text messages, metadata, and developing contact lists from many millions of American and foreign citizens, including heads of state of our allies.

  • Intelligence officials trolled online gaming sites such as Xbox Live and World of Warcraft, both of which are huge gaming communities with millions of users each, to recruit would-be informants.

  • Another program tracked online sexual activity of "radicalizers" in order to discredit them.

  • There's also evidence of targeting private corporate networks and charities such as UNICEF.

The extent of the surveillance was epic. Much of it without warrants. And what warrants were authorized was done so by the at-the-time little known FISA Court(*). An actual secret court where wiretaps and other surveillance requests were granted very nearly 100% of the time and with no opposing counsel -- that is, no public advocate.

What Snowden did was to use his position as an NSA contractor to release classified documents that described these surveillance programs in excruciating detail.

Approval vs. Disapproval

Many have vilified Snowden as a traitor or criminal for his actions but many others have hailed him variously as a hero, patriot, whistleblower, and dissident. About one-third of Americans support Snowden's actions while about two-thirds disapprove. That's not too surprising given that Snowden ratted-out and globally embarrassed the United States government. The government of those very citizens. Still, a one-third approval rate is not bad for someone that the US government characterizes as a traitor, criminal, and dangerous threat to national security.

But it's quite a different story overseas: Snowden enjoys widespread approval among citizens of many foreign countries. For example, an April 2015 poll commissioned by the ACLU shows that Snowden is viewed favorably in Germany and Italy by 84 percent of adults familiar with him. That figure is 80 percent for citizens of France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Australians give him a 54 percent approval, Canadians 58 percent, Brits 54 percent, and New Zealand 51 percent. Quite a different story than here at home where the embarrassment stings the most.

Why should we care what foreigners think? The spying programs were international in scope, not just here at home. Citizens from many countries were caught up in the surveillance and they aren't too happy about it.

I, along with a third of Americans, support what Snowden did. Yes, it's a messy business and what Snowden did caused a lot of problems (many of which needed to be caused) but what came from it puts us in a better place than we were before. I'll expand on that further down.


It's not just a majority of (foreign) citizens that approve of Snowden's actions, either. Snowden has been recognized with numerous awards and honors as well. This is just a partial list of the larger collection of awards, citations, and nominations.

  • Nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

  • 1st runner-up for Time Magazine's Person of the Year 2013, losing only to Pope Francis. Time Magazine was criticized for not awarding Snowden the top spot.

  • 2013 list of Top 100 Global Thinkers, published annually by Foreign Policy Magazine

  • The Guardian's Person of the Year 2013

  • Named in 2014 to Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World

  • Germany's Whistleblower Prize, in 2013

  • Awarded the Sam Adams Award in 2013 recognizing intelligence professionals who have taken a stand for integrity and ethics. This award is presented by a group of retired CIA officers.

  • Awarded together with Laura Poitras, the Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize in 2014

Whatever Snowden's detractors, mostly in the US, think of him, Snowden is clearly held in high esteem by the majority of people and institutions who have bothered to study the issue in any depth. Certainly not all of them, but undeniably many, many of them.

Yet among people who are only passingly familiar with his actions, people who've only read the headlines, the opinion runs more against. What does that tell you?

Unfortunately, just as Trump's ardent supporters aren't interested in competing facts or narratives, so too do Snowden's detractors dismiss positive narrative as either lies, irrelevant, or simply the opinions of the uninformed or anarchists.

Scope of Publication

Some of Snowden's detractors, desperate to sling any handful of mud they can scoop up, have compared him to other leakers most notably Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning. But the Manning doc dump differs considerably. Manning leaked his documents not to a respected journalist with a major publication (Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian), but to Julian Assange -- the founder of Wikileaks, a site dedicated to leaking sensitive stuff, whatever it may be. Assange is an opportunist. He simply published Manning's cache of documents unredacted with no or minimal regard to the safety of those named.

Snowden, on the other hand, gave the documents to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill. These documents were carefully studied and program details released. By all accounts, The Guardian did a stellar job in telling the story responsibly and, they too, have won major awards for their work. By no means a sloppy doc dump.

Whistleblowing, the PC Way

Another charge that some of Snowden's detractors have lobbed, apparently with all seriousness and with a straight face, is asking why Snowden didn't just tell his superiors what he saw. Apparently there are procedures in place for reporting wrongdoing or illegal activities. Silly me. Who'da thunk?

But in all seriousness: Heh heh... Seriously?!? I just have to laugh at that one.

We're not talking about a McDonald's employee calling the tip-line to narc on the manager who's pilfering from the till, stealing happy meals, or hitting on underage employees.

Anyone who believes that Snowden could have succeeded in stopping the massive surveillance programs just by simply reporting his findings to his superiors and expect that the massive surveillance programs would have been stopped is woefully uninformed on the realities of whistleblowing in general and the intelligence community specifically. I mean, do they really think the hundreds of officials, agents, and analysts with the NSA, CIA, and all the rest would have collectively simply said "oh, sorry, our bad. We'll stop now."? At best, Snowden would have simply been fired. At worst, depending on how much noise he made, well, use your imagination.

Such criticism of not "following whistleblower procedure" is just plain lazy. Critics know damn well how poorly it goes for whistleblowers in the best of circumstances, yet they still throw out these arguments to bolster their positions. But in a top-secret government agency tasked with spying? C'mon, give me a break. Reasonable people can disagree if what Snowden did was good or not, but please offer reasonable arguments and not this silliness.

Run, Snowden, Run

Another criticism is that Snowden fled the US and ultimately into Russia's open embrace rather than stand trial on his principles in the US. So what? Critics are conflating the act with the consequences, making the fallacious and implicit argument that his act could only be "honorable" if he also stood trial. A convenient argument because we'll never know if his critics would have bestowed that honor had Snowden turned himself in, will we?

Besides that, who the hell wants to go to prison? Why should his desire to avoid prison -- for he did break the law, would certainly have been convicted, and given a long sentence -- have any bearing on the ultimate legitimacy of the act itself? It's an argument critics make to discredit the act. That, too, is lazy. If his act was wrong, fine, but let it be wrong on its own merits. Not because he ran. That's weak sauce.

As for ending up in Russia: It sure beats going to prison but it's not like Snowden is a free man. If he so much as pokes a toe into an extradition-treaty country, he'll be bagged and held for the US authorities. That pretty much eliminates all desirable travel for him. As for the intel that Russia could gain? Pffft. Russia took him in to poke a stick in the US's eye, pure and simple. As soon as Putin or his successor decides that stick is no longer convenient or useful then Snowden's asylum may be at risk. I guess we'll all find out together.

From the Ashes

I mentioned earlier that we're in a better place now. Congress has held numerous hearings on the surveillance abuses, new laws were passed, and for the first time, the FISA court actually has opposing council -- an advocate for We The People. Government intelligence agencies, still quite powerful, have now felt the leash being pulled back even if just a wee bit.

If what Snowden did was so bad, how is it that we are seeing bipartisan support to strengthen laws to prevent the worst abuses from happening again? How is it his actions are approved by the majority of citizenry of all our important allies?

In light of the revelations, to solve the rampant snooping, tech companies have been amping up security and encryption like mad. This can only be viewed as a good thing. Why is that you may ask? Far, far more prevalent than terrorists are common criminals. Cybercrime is by far the fastest growing segment of criminal activity and it affects absolutely everyone not living in a mud hut in the Amazon, regardless of how tightly doors are locked at night, bodies scanned at the airport, or Muslims banned entry to the US.

This is where we should be focusing our time and energy. I'm far more concerned about theft and misuse of my personal information or dying in a pedestrian way than I am being killed by some boogeyman Islamic terrorist.

Why Do We Have All This Surveillance?

Terrorism is the biggest boogeyman we've ever seen. We are so afraid of the evil terrorists that we'll do anything that we think -- usually incorrectly -- will stop it. We are afraid of our own shadows, demanding our politicians to do something, for God's sake, anything to "stop the terrorists". And that's where these programs come from. No politician wants to be holding the bag next time Ahmed musters an attack. So massive surveillance has become part of the answer. From the numbers you'll read below, you are some 9,000 times more likely to have been killed since 2001 just in a car wreck -- nevermind all the other causes.

Consider these stats -- and this is just in the US:

  • 35,000 people died in car wrecks in 2015. Over 600,000 since 2001.

  • 36,000 died from gun use in 2015. Over 476,000 since 2001.

  • 4,836 people died from workplace injuries in 2015. Over 49,000 since 2006.

  • And the above are just (some of the) non-medical causes of death.

Now compare those numbers to death by terrorist action:

  • During the years 2001 thru 2014, 3,043 people died from terrorist action in the US, and 2,977 (98%) of those was during a single event: 9/11.

  • Overseas, 369 Americans were killed by terrorists during the same time period.

If you eliminate the 9/11 statistical outlier, which was far and away the single largest loss of life due to terrorism, the number killed from all other incidents of defined domestic terrorism since 2001 is 66. The next biggest? 168 killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 -- committed by an American. 

Yet, as a nation, we expend far, far more time, money, and energy fighting terrorism than seriously addressing the things that are really killing us. I am not minimizing those lives lost to terrorism, just as the lives lost in these other ways cannot be minimized. Problem is, we are fretting that Ahmed will get on a plane or boat in Syria or wherever, come to the USA, and kill us. It just doesn't make any logical sense. But, sadly, sense is sorely lacking surrounding this issue.


The 4th amendment of the US Constitution reads as follows:​


The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

That our lawmakers have contorted -- and courts have allowed -- the very clear wording above to allow our surveillance state to exist is troubling. Nevermind civil asset forfeiture(*), another profane abuse of government power.

The bottom line is that governments of free and democratic nations have no business spying on private citizens unless there is probable cause and a proper warrant is issued. And in the US at least, it's in our founding documents!

* External References:

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