Does Edward Snowden’s offer to Brazil make him a hero or a traitor?

December 17, 2013

Edward Snowden (Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/The Guardian)

NSA leaker Edward Snowden, now several weeks into the Moscow winter, has published an open letter to "the people of Brazil" offering to help the country resist U.S. spying efforts in exchange for political asylum. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been highly critical of NSA operations in her country; Brazil also just happens to be where Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who is Snowden's closest ally, is based.

For supporters of Edward Snowden, the letter reinforces the leaker's reputation as a global champion of libertarian ideals and a hero of the struggle for personal freedom and against U.S. abuses of power. For his detractors (such as former Obama administration National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, whose tweet is embedded below), the letter is further proof of Snowden's willingness and perhaps even eagerness to turn against his own country, either for personal gain or out of misplaced spite or perhaps both.

None of us has the ability to peer inside Snowden's head and know what motivates him, of course. Where you stand on the "hero or traitor" question can have less to do with Snowden himself than with your own views on the security-vs.-liberty balance, the line between espionage and snooping and, at a level so fundamental it often goes unstated, the basic relationship and responsibilities between an individual and the state. Your view on Snowden, in other words, can say more about you than it does about Snowden, which is part of why you and your family will argue about it once again over the holidays this year.

The letter affirms for me, for whatever it's worth, my own sense that Snowden and his actions are probably not well captured by either the "hero" or "traitor" archetypes. Those archetypes, after all, almost never satisfactorily explain the actions of actual human beings, who tend to be just too complicated. And Snowden certainly seems to be that. Some of his actions, like the initial decision to release the leaks despite facing a life in exile, certainly appear motivated by an earnest desire to make the world a better place, or at least better conform to certain ideals of liberty as he sees them. Other actions, though, have been much tougher to explain without allowing for the real possibility that he may have other motivations as well.

Snowden's quid-pro-quo offer to Brazil seems to serve his ideals and his self-interest so interchangeably that we just can't answer which is primarily driving him, nor we can fully dismiss either. The young leaker and his headline-grabbing actions continue to be, in many ways, mirrors for our own American process of thinking through the larger issues he's helped to raise.

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