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Dublin: 13 °C Saturday 26 July, 2014

Column: As an American, I’m still not entirely sure about Edward Snowden

Is Edward Snowden a heroic whistleblower or a far less noble character? I think we’re still waiting for that question to be answered, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly

I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT that reality is a lot more complicated than fiction. I’ve never felt more right about that than since Edward Snowden, the former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and National Security Administration (NSA) contractor, leaked details of the comprehensive surveillance programmes maintained by the government of the United States.  I wish I could say I was shocked. But unlike some whose outrage could almost pass for disbelief, I am not.

Without delving into all of the intricacies of PRISM, MAINWAY and Boundless Informant, which are now part of the lexicon in the US and beyond, Snowden revealed that yes, it’s true, Big Brother is sometimes watching. Although the extent of how pervasive the surveillance is depends on who one listens to, it appears that the US government – and, indeed, the British government – can ascertain who we’re talking to and what we’re saying on the telephone and what we’re looking at when we surf the internet.  Snowden has also claimed that the US bugged the offices, tapped the phone lines and monitored emails of the governments and citizens of its European allies.

Like a Hollywood thriller

The events since Snowden’s initial revelations were first published a little more than a month ago in The Guardian and The Washington Post are like something from a Hollywood thriller.

He was in Hong Kong; then stranded in Moscow’s airport; then supposedly en route to Cuba; then allegedly en route to Bolivia; then he’d done a deal for asylum in Ecuador; then he’d done a deal for asylum in Venezuela.  The rumours are impossible to keep up with, but based on Friday’s events, it now seems that Snowden wants to stay in Russia.

People around the world, including here in Ireland, have hailed Edward Snowden as a whistleblower who’s dared to shed light on the actions of a government that’s now viewed derisively and suspiciously by so many.  As one would expect, the reaction within the US, where security has been an omnipresent buzzword since 9/11, has been more divided.  Yet the divisions themselves are rather surprising and don’t readily align with the polarisation that’s now so evident back in the country of my birth.

Snowden has been charged with theft and espionage by federal prosecutors and attacked as an enemy of the state by some within the US Department of Justice and as “reckless” by the national intelligence director.  Conversely, a former NSA executive has called Snowden’s action “an amazingly brave act of civil disobedience” and he has been honoured with the Sam Adams Award by a group of ex-CIA agents.

Traitor or hero

The reaction to Snowden also defies political stereotypes.  The conservative Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, and the liberal US Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein, have both called Snowden a traitor.  On the other hand, at least one Republican US Congressman believes he should be immune from prosecution and several Republican US Senators have voiced their sympathies.

Meanwhile, commentators on the hard left of American politics, like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, have joined their counterparts on the hard right, like Glenn Beck and Matt Drudge, to praise and defend Snowden.

This division is mirrored in the American people.  For instance, a new Quinnipiac University poll makes for fascinating reading. Among its findings are that 55 per cent of Americans view Edward Snowden as a whistleblower, and only 34 per cent as a traitor.  That poll also shows that 45 per cent of Americans think the US goes too far and now tramples on civil liberties in the name of national security. In January 2010, 63 per cent didn’t think the US went far enough. This is a dramatic turnaround.

Civil liberties

Furthermore, and perhaps most surprisingly, this poll shows that American women seem less concerned about civil liberties than men. Asked even after Snowden’s revelations, more women still say anti-terrorism efforts haven’t gone far enough.

It’s clear that Edward Snowden splits public opinion in his home country. As an American, I remain favourably disposed, but find myself somewhat torn.

I suspect that is because the key question in the Snowden affair has yet to be answered: who is Edward Snowden? Is he a heroic whistleblower who’s put everything on the line to stand up for the principles that our country was founded upon and we claim to hold dear? Or is he a far less noble and far more nefarious character altogether – an egomaniac, a narcissist, a profiteer, or worse?

Millions of people around the world, not just Americans, await the answer with baited breath.  The reality, as ever, is likely to be complicated.

Larry Donnelly, a Boston attorney, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist for IrishCentral.com.

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