The Washington Post

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

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.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.
Next Story
Max Fisher · December 16, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.