Is Edward Snowden a traitor?
The question has vexed me ever since he leaked some of America’s most valued secrets to various news organizations, including the Washington Post. It soon became obvious, though, that he was giving Americans information that maybe we should have had all along and he was getting nothing in exchange — no baubles, no dames and, much less cinematically, no Eurobonds. If this is the case, then as a traitor Snowden is something of a flop. He’s all quid and no quo.
The question of Snowden’s fate has been raised anew by the New York Times. Last week, it published a strong editorial arguing that Snowden should be offered some sort of deal — maybe even clemency — so that he could abandon his exile in Russia and return to the United States. The reaction was unprecedented: more than 1,200 comments by midday, which is exceptional for an editorial. Many of them were “obscene and hate-filled,” the paper’s editorial page editor told its public editor — and that is not exceptional at all. Descartes must now be updated: I am insulted, therefore I am.
Now, I too must open myself up to vilification. I have already written that Snowden is not much of a traitor. He hardly fits the category — Benedict Arnold, Julius Rosenberg (I hesitate with his wife, Ethel) or, more recently, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. My list is not nearly complete, but to add Snowden to it would create a mismatch, one of those tests in which you are asked to find the example that does not fit the category. No matter. The epithet “traitor” has been hurled at Snowden by a host of honorables — Harry Reid, John Boehner, Peter King and that emeritus one from administrations past, Dick Cheney.
It remains somewhat possible that Snowden did serious harm to America. However, I have heard such claims all my career — from the Pentagon Papers onward — and yet, somehow, the country staggers on. Whatever the case, harm was apparently not Snowden’s intention. That’s why he had responsible media organizations vet his material before publication. He seemed only intent on alerting all of us to the extent of government eavesdropping. In this sense, Snowden did good.