President Obama answered "no" when asked at a Friday press conference whether he considers NSA leaker Edward Snowden to be a patriot, thus restarting a weeks-old debate about whether Snowden is a hero or villain, a patriot or traitor.
Anyone interested in that determination has likely already read many arguments on any given day, so I'll submit only these three somewhat ambivalent points:
1) The question ultimately turns on Snowden's intentions as much or more than his actions. Speaking for myself, I have no reason to believe that I can know what's in Snowden's head or heart. Unless the NSA has technology way beyond what we already know of, neither does President Obama.
2) Snowden's leaks have brought wide public attention to U.S. domestic intelligence programs, which in turn compelled not just Friday's news conference but Obama's announcement that he would change those programs, perhaps most significantly by reforming section 215 of the Patriot Act. Obama conceded that the leaks had at the very least accelerated his administration's review and increased public pressure, adding that "those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live up to our highest ideals." So there's a strong case to be made that this effect of Snowden's leaks fits Obama's definition of patriotism.
3) But Snowden has made other leaks that were not discussed at Friday's press conference, including revealing U.S. espionage programs against China, where he was seeking shelter at the time. Espionage between nations is both legal and an accepted norm of the international system; it's also a two-way street that China treads quite heavily. Some have argued that the cyberespionage programs that Snowden revealed may have been targeting Chinese arms control, although this is circumstantial and the exact target remains unknown. So does Snowden's internal motivations in making these leaks, just like his others. But it's extremely difficult to imagine a way in which these particular leaks were driven by patriotism. That's not an argument on behalf of considering him a traitor, as some do, but just a reminder that these cases are not always as simple as binary divisions between good or bad, hero or villain.