To decide where Snowden falls in the spectrum between altruistic whistleblower and dangerous criminal, it helps to put the leaks into perspective. "In my estimation, 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," Daniel Ellsberg wrote Monday. Ellsberg is a former military analyst and RAND employee who in 1971 leaked to The New York Times the secret history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers, which showed how four successive presidential administrations lied to the public about Vietnam policies.
Whistleblowers are vital to the health of a democracy. "Whistleblowing is the moral response to immoral activity by those in power," said information security guru Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer of BT, in a blog post, in which he lauded Snowden as "an American hero."
Schneier argued that we need more people like Edward Snowden who, when they see evidence of wrongdoing, release information on "government programs and methods, not data about individuals," which alludes to Snowden saying he carefully selected leaked data so it wouldn't put intelligence agents or overseas operations at risk.
"I understand I am asking for people to engage in illegal and dangerous behavior," Schneier said. "Do it carefully and do it safely, but -- and I am talking directly to you, person working on one of these secret and probably illegal programs -- do it."
For the rest of us, should whistle-blowers who bring to light "illegal and dangerous behavior" get a "stay out of jail free" card? When leaks are done in a manner that doesn't put lives at risk, that does seem to be the appropriate, democratic response.