** Update Below **
It's far too early to call Edward Snowden a hero the same way that it's far too early to call him a traitor. I'd like more information on his personal background, the ways in which he obtained the information he did, and what the specific motivations may have been for his actions leading up to the disclosure and immediately following it before I even begin to move toward deciding whether I think Snowden deserves to be deified or vilified. Right now, from what we know about him, and all we don't know, I'm inclined to consider Snowden in terms related solely to what he did and what he says about what he did, and all of that's fairly unambiguous. He violated the law and took it upon himself to see to it that the United States could no longer operate a program, with apparent judicial oversight, put in place for the purpose of national defense. He disclosed classified information then fled to a foreign country that's considered an enemy of the U.S., one that regularly seeks to steal secrets from this country. I don't know whether Snowden is a traitor or not but I'm absolutely not going to call him a hero because he's not -- certainly not at this point, anyway.
Whether you believe that the United States should be able to legally monitor telecommunications information from its citizens in the name of trying to thwart potential attacks against it, the fact remains that there exists in this country an agency which is dedicated solely to programs with this very goal. And Edward Snowden worked as a contractor for it. He claims to have had an epiphany during his brief time under the NSA umbrella which required him to follow his conscience and turn what he'd seen over to a reporter who's made it his mission to be a thorn in the side of the Obama administration and who has time and time again pledged allegiance to the likes of Julian Assange; he did this, then, before running off to China, recorded an extended interview in which he made claims about the program he divulged and his own involvement in it that former NSA analysts and lawyers are now saying simply do not add up. So, if you're following along at home, Edward Snowden reacted with shock and anger when he learned that the NSA was doing precisely what the NSA exists to do; illegally gave information to a guy he knew would publicly canonize him; and threw his own coming out party from Hong Kong in which he seems to be exaggerating not only the details of the NSA program he exposed but his own role in exposing it.
CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeff Toobin wrote a scathing column in The New Yorker yesterday in which he called Snowden a "grandiose narcissist" who deserves to be in prison right now. I'm again not sure I'm willing to go that far in my assessment of him at this point given that I don't know the ins and outs of his personality, but Toobin has a point when he says that anyone who believes that he and he alone should be granted the kind of responsibility Snowden undertook in the name of doing what he believes is right in order to satisfy his conscience obviously thinks a hell of a lot of himself. The NSA programs Snowden exposed may be questionable, but what they don't appear to be is illegal. They're simply secret because -- guess what? -- there's almost no way to maintain national security without at least some amount of secrecy; to believe otherwise is staggeringly naive bordering on outright stupid. Edward Snowden decided that we all needed to know about these programs because he personally found them offensive. He wasn't an elected official. He wasn't representative of the United States people other than in a role he personally chose for himself. He decided what was best for the entire nation because his values -- values that perhaps should've precluded him from ever working for the NSA in the first place -- were violated.
And make no mistake: His goal wasn't to simply shine a light into the dark and allow people to decide for themselves if they like what they see there; if that were the case he wouldn't have handed the information he stole off to someone like Glenn Greenwald, who was almost certainly going to use it to try to damage the Obama administration. Snowden's goal was to end the secrecy that he felt was wrong. Again, he decided what was best for all of us.
Over the next several days, more details will begin to surface both on Edward Snowden and the specific ways in which he fed classified materials to the press. Some will indignantly argue that by carefully looking into Snowden's life and examining his motives, journalists who didn't do their jobs and report on the NSA will simply be engaging in more fealty to power by shooting the messenger. That's crap -- all the way around. There are not only questions already being raised about what Snowden's specific role was as an NSA contractor but about the timeline of events, when Snowden first made contact with Glenn Greenwald versus when he began working for the NSA. These are questions worth asking, even as we're now asking questions about what our government has been up to in the name of national security. Because as it stands right now, despite the cries of those who believe that what he did was inherently good, Edward Snowden is no hero.
Update (6.12.13):Now he's a traitor. It's one thing to divulge information about your home country's activities with regard to what it's doing domestically; it's another thing entirely to divulge classified operations involving an enemy of that country to that enemy. What you're doing then is essentially treasonous.