Is Edward Snowden a hero or traitor?

Edward Snowden, the former defense contractor who blew the whistle on the National Security Agency's massive domestic surveillance program, is being hailed as a hero by many for exposing the government's controversial spy operations.

"Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs," a petition urging the Obama administration to pardon Snowden posted to the White House website reads. It has more than 50,000 signatures.

"He is a hero," The New Yorker's John Cassidy writes. "In revealing the colossal scale of the U.S. government’s eavesdropping on Americans and other people around the world, he has performed a great public service that more than outweighs any breach of trust he may have committed."

"There has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material," Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers in 1971 exposed the secret history of the Vietnam War, wrote in an op-ed published by The Guardian on Monday. "Snowden's whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an 'executive coup' against the U.S. constitution."

But not everyone thinks Snowden was so heroic.

The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin calls Snowden "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison":

The American government, and its democracy, are flawed institutions. But our system offers legal options to disgruntled government employees and contractors. They can take advantage of federal whistle-blower laws; they can bring their complaints to Congress; they can try to protest within the institutions where they work. But Snowden did none of this. 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. We all now have to hope that he’s right.

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"For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of trust and cooperation, a respect for institutions and deference to common procedures," David Brooks writes in the New York Times. "By deciding to unilaterally leak secret N.S.A. documents, Snowden has betrayed all of these things":

He betrayed honesty and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.

He betrayed his friends. Anybody who worked with him will be suspect. Young people in positions like that will no longer be trusted with responsibility for fear that they will turn into another Snowden.

He betrayed his employers. Booz Allen and the C.I.A. took a high-school dropout and offered him positions with lavish salaries. He is violating the honor codes of all those who enabled him to rise.

He betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more.

He betrayed the privacy of us all. If federal security agencies can’t do vast data sweeps, they will inevitably revert to the older, more intrusive eavesdropping methods.

"Forget skinny ties and retro hats," Ralph Peters writes in the New York Post. "The surest way to attain super-cool status (and fame) today is to betray your country":

The impossibly self-important NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, who “exposed” two vital intelligence programs, isn’t a leftie Paul Revere. He’s Kim Kardashian with stubble. He revealed very highly classified programs, alerting our enemies about our most sophisticated intelligence-collection capabilities (programs designed to keep us safe, not spy on us). He broke his oath to protect the information with which we entrusted him, lied about who we target and aided those who want to kill Americans. And he hints he could do more damage.

To this old-fashioned American, that’s plain treason.

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen writes that Snowden's leaks, not the NSA, deserve condemnation:

The exposure of the PRISM program under which the NSA monitors foreign terrorists on the Internet, as well as the leak of a top-secret court order requiring Verizon to share calling data with the government, are incredibly damaging to national security. These leaks give terrorists information they did not have about our collection activities. They undermine the willingness of American companies to cooperate with us because these leaks have put their international reputations at risk. And they teach everyone—including sources and liaison partners—not to work with us because we cannot keep a secret.

But instead of being outraged by the damage done by these leaks, critics on the left and right are criticizing the NSA for undertaking activities that are lawful, constitutional and absolutely vital to protecting the country.

Calm down, folks. Big Brother is not watching you.

Thiessen's Post colleague Richard Cohen writes that Snowden will go down in history "as a cross-dressing Little Red Riding Hood":

No one lied about the various programs disclosed last week. They were secret, yes, but members of Congress were informed—and they approved. Safeguards were built in. If, for instance, the omniscient computers picked up a pattern of phone calls from Mr. X to Suspected Terrorist Y, the government had to go to court to find out what was said. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act established a court consisting of 11 rotating federal judges. These judges are the same ones who rule on warrants the government seeks in domestic criminal cases. If we trust them for that, why would we not trust them for other things as well?

The Post's Dana Milbank thinks the U.S. government has no one to blame but itself:

It is precisely their effort to hide such a vast and consequential program from the American public that caused this pressure valve to burst. Instead of allowing a democratic debate about the programs in broad terms that would not have compromised national security, their attempts to keep the public in the dark have created a backlash in which the risks to national security can’t be controlled.

Snowden, Milbank adds, "did the honorable thing in revealing his identity; it would be more honorable if he would turn himself in and face the consequences for his law-breaking. But there is little honor in the way administration officials and lawmakers have avoided responsibility."