WASHINGTON—US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden has earned praise and condemnation from fellow Americans divided over whether his disclosures make him a whistleblowing hero or a self-absorbed traitor.
But public opinion remains fluid and Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow could cost him support, possibly recasting him as a mere pawn of America’s adversaries.
Senator Rand Paul, one of a handful of politicians to defend the former IT contractor, voiced concern that Snowden would tarnish his reputation as an “advocate of privacy” if he sought favors from America’s rivals.
“If he cozies up to either the Russian government, the Chinese government, or any of these governments that are perceived still as enemies of ours, I think that will be a real problem for him in history,” Paul told CNN on Sunday.
According to surveys, Americans display “ambivalence” toward Snowden and the National Security Agency surveillance programs that he exposed, with opinions still shifting as the fast-moving drama unfolds, said Carroll Doherty, associate editor of the Pew Research Center.
In a USA Today/Pew poll released June 17, 54 percent of respondents said Snowden should be prosecuted for his bombshell leaks.
But a YouGov poll earlier this month showed 35 percent of Americans opposed putting Snowden on trial, with 26 percent in favor and the rest undecided.
Some pundits argue younger Americans are more open to Snowden and an earlier Pew survey carried out on June 6-9 seems to bear that out.
The poll showed people under 30 are more likely to put a priority on privacy over security compared to older Americans, Doherty told AFP.
“We’ve seen a different view throughout,” he said. “Young people are more sympathetic to him and more sympathetic to his actions.”
About 45 percent of Americans aged 18-29 said it was more important for the US government to avoid intruding on personal privacy, even if that “limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats,” the poll said.
Snowden’s case has prompted an intense debate that sometimes transcends partisan lines, with some on the left castigating the former NSA contractor as misguided, naive or worse.
Author Jeffrey Toobin, a legal expert known for his left-leaning views, said Snowden was neither a hero nor a villain: “He is, rather, a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison.”
Snowden should have been realistic about the spy organization he was working for and, if he had concerns, he could have gone to Congress or taken advantage of laws that allow civil servants to sound the alarm on abuses, Toobin said.
“Instead, in an act that speaks more to his ego than his conscience, he threw the secrets he knew up in the air—and trusted, somehow, that good would come of it,” Toobin wrote in a post for the New Yorker.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made a similar point, saying Snowden had “taken an oath.”
“If you can’t keep the oath, get out. And then do something about it in a legal way,” she said.
But others depicted Snowden as heir to a previous era’s leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed documents 40 years ago showing the Pentagon secretly concluded the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.
Ellsberg himself hailed Snowden for uncovering an “executive coup” against the US Constitution, and John Cassidy of the New Yorker said he was “that most awkward and infuriating of creatures—a man of conscience.”
For others though, the argument over Snowden’s motives is irrelevant to bigger issues surrounding the government’s far-reaching surveillance programs.
“Love him or hate him, we all owe Snowden our thanks for forcing upon the nation an important debate. But the debate shouldn’t be about him,” wrote Ron Fournier of the National Journal.
“It should be about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.”—Dan De Luce