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Is Former NSA Contractor Snowden a Traitor?


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The Russian government recently granted former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden a three-year residency permit. He is wanted in the United States on espionage charges after revealing key intelligence documents.

As an intelligence contractor with the National Security Agency, Snowden had access to thousands of secret documents. Last year, he started leaking to newspapers classified material dealing with the NSA’s worldwide surveillance programs.

He first fled to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he was granted asylum for one year. Now Russian authorities have extended his stay for three years, providing him with a residency permit.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden participates via satellite in the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum, at New York University, June 5, 2014 in New York.

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden participates via satellite in the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum, at New York University, June 5, 2014 in New York.

Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law at American University, said he is not surprised by Russia’s action.

“Because he really is still very much a thorn in the side of the American intelligence community. And most importantly, what this means in practice is that Snowden now has a place to stay until after the end of the Obama administration,” said Vladeck, “by which point the politics surrounding him and the potential that he might return to the United States could be very, very different.”

Is Snowden a traitor?

Snowden’s actions and Moscow’s decision to grant him a residency permit have reignited discussion as to whether or not Snowden is a traitor.

“In my personal view, he is a traitor because he violated his secrecy agreements, because no single individual should have the option to put his own conscience or decisions about what’s proper above the law," said Richard Betts, a national security expert at Columbia University. "And I believe he’s done damage to what I consider to be reasonable intelligence collection activities of the U.S. government.”

But Vladeck takes a different view.

“I don’t think that there is any evidence that Snowden committed treason," he said. "Treason is a very specific crime defined by U.S. law as requiring the levying of war against the United States. Whatever we think of Snowden, he may very well be a criminal. There is no question that he violated the Espionage Act. He may very well be a patriot - that’s a moral judgment. The one thing that I think we all should agree on is he is not a traitor. Traitor is a very specific legal term and there is just no evidence that is applicable in this case.”

1917 espionage law

Vladeck said the Espionage Act was passed in 1917 just as the United States entered World War l. It dealt with what was known as "classic spying" - for example, an agent of a foreign nation spying on the U.S.

The problem with the Espionage Act, said Vladeck, is that it’s too old.

“And so the Espionage Act today takes three very different activities - classic spying, 'leaking' and whistleblowing - and treats them all the same in any case in which they involve the transmission of national security information to someone who is not authorized to receive it.”

Vladeck and other experts say the Espionage Act has been used sparingly. But in the last several years, they say, it has reappeared as a weapon that the U.S. government has been using in trying to clamp down on leaks of classified information.

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    Andre de Nesnera

    Andre de Nesnera is senior analyst at the Voice of America, where he has reported on international affairs for more than three decades. Now serving in Washington D.C., he was previously senior European correspondent based in London, established VOA’s Geneva bureau in 1984 and in 1989 was the first VOA correspondent permanently accredited in the Soviet Union.

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