Ziemer: Whistleblower or traitor?

BY JEREMY ZIEMER | JUNE 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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Among the public, there is a debate brewing over whether Edward Snowden, the source of the recent NSA leak, is a whistleblower worthy of praise or a traitor worthy of prosecution.

A whistleblower is one who sees something wrong, particularly illegal activities, and brings that information to public attention. A traitor is one who betrays his nation.

One of the prominent whistleblowers in U.S. history is Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, which detailed lies by U.S. administrations about the Vietnam War. His leaks intensified the national discourse on the legitimacy of the Vietnam War, and he was arrested and indicted for espionage and went to trial twice.  Both cases were thrown out. It became clear that Ellsberg had neither provided the secret documents to foreign governments nor sought personal gain from their publication.

Snowden is not a whistleblower in the spirit of Ellsberg.

The Obama administration is seeking to prosecute Snowden under the 1917 Espionage Act, and this harsh treatment has driven many investigative journalists and observers to come out in defense of Edward Snowden.

But does Snowden deserve it?

What strikes me about the Snowden case, and similarly with Bradley Manning’s, is how isolated from the establishment these individuals were. They were essentially low-level government employees who had access to classified information on computers. They had little or no connections to lawmakers or the power structure of society. They were more cog-in-the-machine than engine.

This brings to light significant and difficult-to-ignore questions about the legitimacy and virtuousness of their actions.

When Edward Snowden released classified details about how the NSA snoops on its citizens and foreigners, national discourse appeared to change for the better. People were thinking about important questions, such as the constitutionality of secret and invasive government programs.

But, as time has passed, we learned about Snowden, who he was, and what his job was for the government.

The discourse shifted to this unelected high-school dropout who obtained a six-figure job for the NSA in Hawaii primarily to leak classified information to the public.

To Snowden’s misfortune, newer leaks have suggested a growing lack of discretion by the former NSA worker. For example, he has alleged that the United States government hacks and engages in cyber attacks against China. To most foreign-relations observers, this would not come as much surprise, but it certainly speaks to a white elephant in the room, and it creates diplomatic tension with China.

Unfortunately, leaks like this add fuel to the fire on the question of Snowden’s character.

We do know that he claims to value improving national discourse, and certainly in part, he has. However, it is not clear that he has much more than a naïve conception of the word.

Snowden is young — 29 years old — and according to a New York Times article, seemed to be surprised how small his world would get when the U.S. government decided he should be prosecuted for espionage.

There may be good reasons Esllberg was not prosecuted for blowing the whistle on the documents we know as the Pentagon Papers: He had connections with and worked through the establishment. He was also willing to own up to his actions.

Snowden does not seem to have these connections, and he has instead worked with another man on the run, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and non-U.S. newspapers.

What Ellsberg did for discourse was heroic. He knowingly and willingly was ready to take the fall for his country, and the country was better for his heroism.

If Snowden truly desires to help our nation’s discourse, as he has claimed, then he should come back and face the music. Otherwise, he looks more cowardly than heroic, and ultimately, that may hurt the cause that he has sacrificed so much to further.

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