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The three types of NSA snooping that Edward Snowden revealed

Edward Snowden (Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras/Guardian)

The cybersecurity scholar Peter Singer has articulated an interesting new way to think about Edward Snowden's leaks revealing NSA snooping practices. Singer, in a Twitter chat earlier today, divided the leaks into three general categories:

The reason this parsing of Snowden's leaks feels important to me is that it helps explain why he can be so polarizing -- why so many Americans see him as either a hero or a villain but rarely as something in between.

These aren't just three categories of leaks; they're three different ways to think about Snowden. People who care a lot about U.S. foreign policy are going to give more weight to Singer's first category: leaks revealing espionage against U.S. adversaries and rival. They're going to be more likely to view Snowden through that lens and to judge him harshly for, as they see it, carelessly and needlessly setting back the United States. The constituency of people who follow U.S. foreign policy closely is relatively small, but it also tends to be deeply passionate -- not to mention disproportionately represented in Washington, D.C.

For people who are more concerned with U.S. civil liberties, though, that second category of leaks -- those having to do with domestic spying -- is going to look awfully significant and deeply concerning. The dubious legal and ethical nature of these programs, not to mention their total secrecy, would seem to justify releasing them -- and casts Snowden in a favorable light. The issue of civil liberties has a huge constituency, for the very good reason that it affects everybody in the country. Some people are more passionate about it than others, but the implications touch us all.

The third category of leaks is significant, of course, but not something that tends to animate as much discussion concerning Snowden and NSA programs.

Singer's categorization sheds a lot of light on why Americans continue to argue so vociferously about whether Snowden is a hero or a villain, with little gray area in between. Regular readers of this blog will know that I take no hard position on the question, but see it as a fascinating lens into how we talk about national security policy and the privacy-security divide in the United States. Parsing his leaks as Singer does helps demonstrate that.

When you see Americans arguing about Snowden – most recently, over the question of whether he deserves a pardon – one big reason they tend to speak past each other is that they're often simply talking about different things.

Imagine for a moment that Snowden leaked information only from the first category, about U.S. espionage against its adversaries. How would you see him? Maybe not as a traitor, but almost certainly not as a hero deserving of clemency, either. That should give you a degree of insight into why people deeply concerned with U.S. foreign policy are less likely to look on Snowden favorably.

Now try to imagine that he leaked information only from the second category, about domestic snooping. If you weren't receptive to the idea of Snowden as a patriotic hero, maybe even one deserving of a pardon, this should help you understand why a number of Americans do see it that way.

Of course, both things are true; Snowden is responsible for both categories of leaks. But people tend to feel so strongly about either U.S. foreign policy or U.S. civil liberties that, for many of us, it can be difficult to hold both of them in our head at the same time. So we tend to focus exclusively on the half of it that most concerns us. That's not a feature of American political debate that's unique to the Snowden controversy.

Singer's tweets are part of a promotion for his forthcoming book, "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everybody Needs to Know," co-authored with Allan Friedman. I recently recorded a podcast with Singer and Friedman, both of the Brookings Institution, for War on the Rocks; check back next week to hear it.