Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old National Security Agency contractor who admitted he was behind recent leaks of classified intelligence, has vaulted from obscurity to international notoriety, joining the ranks of high-profile leakers such as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.
The fact that Snowden stepped forward to acknowledge his leaks to The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers rather than wait for the FBI to find him impressed others who have disclosed government secrets.
"I consider it a magnificent act of civil disobedience," said Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who was prosecuted for leaking classified information to a journalist but wound up serving no prison time after the government's case fell apart. "He's a whistleblower."
Ellsberg was similarly impressed. He said in an interview: "There's no American official or former official that I admire more at this point. There's never been a more important disclosure to the American people than the leak [by Snowden] — and I include the Pentagon Papers in that. . . . He's clearly ready to give his life or his freedom for the interests of his country."
Others view Snowden's leaks of NSA and other documents to the The Post and the Guardian as a breach of his oath to protect classified information that may have harmed national security.
"The government is not going to hold back on this case," said Michael Vatis, a former associate deputy attorney general for national security in the Clinton administration. "This is a huge one."
Vatis, now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, said Snowden's breach was not comparable to Ellsberg's because Ellsberg revealed how the government was lying to the public about the prospects for success and the scale of casualties in the Vietnam War.
Snowden's leak, he said, revealed details of electronic surveillance programs operating within the law, authorized by Congress and overseen by a federal court. One program related to the NSA's gathering of records of customers of U.S. telephone companies for counterterrorism purposes. Another involves the NSA's collection of the communications of foreigners through U.S. Internet companies.
Snowden said he was motivated by his belief that the government, particularly the ultra-secret NSA, had built an enterprise "that allows it to intercept almost everything" in a way that violates privacy rights.
His revelations of the inner workings of the two programs have reignited a debate over whether the government's secret surveillance programs are sufficiently protective of civil liberties and privacy in the name of protecting the country against terrorism.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA has been at the forefront in collecting electronic information worldwide as part of the nation's counterterrorism efforts. The material exposed by Snowden provided an unprecedented look at the scope of the surveillance carried out by the agency. President Barack Obama defended the surveillance as essential to U.S. security and said he welcomes an extended debate.
"As far as I'm able to judge, the public policy value [of his leaks] far exceeds the potential risk involved to national security," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "It has triggered an intense public debate. These stories have really enriched public discourse."
Aftergood said Snowden's leaks were targeted and selective, unlike those of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst on trial for orchestrating the leak of more than 700,000 government documents to the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks Web site.
"There were lots of records put out by WikiLeaks that had no particular significance other than the fact that they are restricted," Aftergood said. "It was an anti-secrecy campaign. This [Snowden's action] seemed to aim at a much larger target — namely the scope of intelligence surveillance activity and government overreaching and violation of policy."
Snowden is the first leaker to step forward and admit his act before he was even named by the government. "There's a certain dignity in that," said Aftergood. "Among leakers, as among others who defy accepted norms, that is the exception, not the rule."
Ellsberg surrendered to authorities in 1971 after it became known that an arrest warrant had been issued for him. He said he wanted to take responsibility for his actions. But unlike Snowden, he said, it did not occur to him to flee — in Snowden's case to Hong Kong. "But his being in Hong Kong gives him the chance to speak out openly in a way that he could not do here, to explain his motives," Ellsberg said.
U.S. officials and national security experts, however, say the leaker should be prosecuted.
"Taking a very sensitive classified program that targets foreign persons on foreign lands, and putting just enough out there to be dangerous, is dangerous to us. It's dangerous to our national security. And it violates the oath which that person took," Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a television interview Sunday. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., his Senate counterpart, agreed that the leaks demanded prosecution.
The most likely statute under which Snowden would be prosecuted is the 1917 Espionage Act, a law used to prosecute Manning, Drake and Ellsberg. Provisions under that law make it a crime to disclose national defense information to persons unauthorized to receive it and to transmit and publish communications intelligence information.