Hero Or Traitor?: Six Months Later, The Debate Continues

NOTE: This story was originally written for the Global Journalist, but wasn't published due to website maintenance.

The ongoing story of Edward Snowden leaking classified documents began when the Guardian published a story about the National Security Agency monitoring phone records of millions of Verizon customers on June 5, 2013.

Four days later Snowden, the former NSA contractor, came forward identifying himself as a whistleblower

What began as a single story dealing with phone records unfolded into much more — a public conversation, a pressing debate in the technology age. Where’s the line between personal privacy and national security? 

What makes a journalist a journalist? If journalists expose national security documents, should they face criminal penalties or be awarded for public service? 

These are among a few of the questions that have been raised in light of Snowden’s NSA revelations. The debate continues as leaks are periodically made public. 

Global Journalist monitors the state of press freedom, and our coverage from the past six months reveals press freedom concerns surrounding this ongoing story. 

The Chilling of Whistleblowers

Federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft of government property in addition to two charges under the Espionage Act including “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person” June 14, 2013.

Eight out of 11 whistleblowers have been charged with the 1917 Espionage Act under the Obama administration.

That’s more than double the number under all previous US presidents combined. 

“In what conceivable sense are Snowden's actions ‘espionage’? He could have - but chose not - sold the information he had to a foreign intelligence service for vast sums of money, or covertly passed it to one of America's enemies, or worked at the direction of a foreign government. That is espionage. He did none of those things,” lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote in an article for the Guardian

Targeting Journalists

On June 27, Dean Baker, economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, tweeted: “Greenwald is doing as much to expose corrupt journalism as to expose government spying.”

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“Indeed, from the earliest stages of this reporting, back in Hong Kong, we expected (and hoped) that the reporting we were about to do would expose conflicts in how journalism is understood and practiced as much as it would shine light on the NSA's specific surveillance programs,” Greenwald wrote for the Guardian

In late August Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for almost nine hours in a London airport for questioning under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Nine hours is the maximum holding time before authorities are required to formally arrest or release an individual. 

The Guardian article cites official figures stating: “most examinations under schedule 7 – over 97% – last less than an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.”

On July 20, the Guardian destroyed hard drives and memory chips with encrypted files as technicians from the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) stood by to witness and document the destruction. The Guardian published a story a month later explaining to the public that the threat of legal action by the government could have prevented further reporting on the leaked files.

The recent, aggressive force against journalists provoked the Committee to Protect Journalists to issue its first special report on the Obama administration’s relationship with the press. 

Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, authored the report and acknowledged Obama’s failure to uphold earlier promises to increase government transparency and openness. 

Global Journalist summarized the report highlighting the concerns of industry leaders within the field of journalism. These concerns range from the ability to protect the confidentiality of sources — to the increasing culture of secrecy — to the ability to hold the government accountable — to a ripple effect that could hinder press freedoms around the world if press freedoms in the U.S. lose credibility.

The Public Reacts

Reactions to the leaked documents vary around the world. The British government along with the Obama administration, condemn the leaks. Yet, activists and human rights groups express concern towards the governments’ reactions. 

Seventy human rights groups from 40 different countries came together to write a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron condemning the British government’s reaction to the leaked information.

According to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, “there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.”

While some consider Snowden to be a hero, others hold an opposing view.  

“He’s a traitor,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “The disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what are capabilities are, and it’s a giant violation of the law.”

Fox News analyst Ralph Peters called Snowden a “high school dropout thug” that wasn’t vetted properly before being hired as a NSA contractor at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Photo credit: Creative Commons







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