Some national security advocates are calling for the prosecution of ex-federal employee Edward Snowden, who leaked details of a top secret U.S. surveillance program. But Snowden’s supporters say he should be protected as a whistleblower for exposing U.S. constitutional violations of civil liberties.
To many who support increased security even at the cost of some personal privacy, Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed vast government surveillance programs, is a villain.
The information he revealed included NSA programs to collect phone records and gain access to the Internet usage of millions of Americans. U.S. officials say the programs are legal and the data they gathered has stopped several terrorist plots.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, wants Snowden to be tried for espionage.
“It’s dangerous to our national security, and it violates the oath of which that person took. I absolutely think they should be prosecuted,” said Rogers.
But to others who think the NSA has exceeded its legal authority, Snowden is a hero for speaking out. Jesselyn Radack is with the Government Accountability Project.
“I think he is a whistleblower, and it was incredibly brave, well thought out, risky action that he took for the benefit of people in this country. So I can’t think of a better definition of a hero,” said Ms. Radack.
She says the NSA data mining programs that Snowden leaked intrude on the privacy of Americans beyond the limits set by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 2008 and the Patriot Act.
“So the laws have been clearly broken and he definitely disclosed information that reveals massive waste, abuse and patent illegality on a grand scale that I have not seen in a long time,” said Ms. Radack.
President Obama has said that while the programs are classified, they are authorized by Congress. White House spokesman Jay Carney declined Monday to comment on the ongoing investigation, but said the president has tried to balance privacy rights with keeping Americans safe.
“I think the president’s record on making the kinds of changes that he promised he would make to the ways that we pursue our fight against al-Qaida and our fight against terrorists and extremists, he has lived up to,” said Carney.
Snowden is currently in Hong Kong and plans to seek asylum from any countries that he says believe in protecting free speech and global privacy.
The 29-year-old man appears to be a high school dropout who rapidly moved through U.S. intelligence circles.
Snowden grew up in North Carolina and Maryland. In an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, he said he never completed high school, but studied computing at a Maryland community college and obtained a general educational development diploma.
The Guardian quoted the U.S. military as saying Snowden enlisted in the army reserve as a special forces recruit in May 2004 but did not complete the training and was discharged four months later.
Snowden told the paper that his military career was cut short after he broke both his legs in a training accident.
The Guardian said Snowden got his first job as a security guard for the U.S. National Security Agency, or NSA, which assigned him to a covert facility at the University of Maryland.
The paper said Snowden’s talent for computer programming helped him to move on to a job with the Central Intelligence Agency as an information technology security specialist. It says the CIA stationed him with diplomatic cover in Geneva, Switzerland, by 2007. The CIA generally refuses to confirm or deny employment with the agency.
Snowden told the paper that he left the CIA in 2009 and took on several jobs as a private contractor for the NSA, including assignments at the computer company Dell and a U.S. military facility in Japan.
U.S. defense consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton said it hired Snowden earlier this year at an office in Hawaii. It said he had been employed for less than three months when he told reporters that he was the source of leaks on the U.S. surveillance programs.
The company expressed shock at the revelations and said that if confirmed, Snowden’s actions represent “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”
Neighbors said Snowden lived in a house near Honolulu for several months, sharing it with his girlfriend. They say he kept largely to himself and stored an usually large number of boxes in his garage.
The Guardian said Snowden is an Internet freedom advocate, placing stickers on his laptop bearing the names of groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project.
It also quoted him as saying voted for a third party candidate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Snowden says he believed in the promises of President Barack Obama, who won that election, and waited to see how Obama would govern before exposing the secret programs.
Snowden said he eventually disclosed the information in part because Obama, in his view, continued the policies of his predecessor.