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Snowden: hero or traitor?

Is Edward Snowden a hero?

In a well-attended panel discussion at Emerson’s Cabaret on October 8, intelligence experts were mixed on the question, but not the attendees.

Eighty percent of audience members deemed Snowden a “hero” versus a “traitor” using their smartphones in an instant poll organized by discussion moderator Spencer Kimball, scholar-in-residence of the Communication Studies Department, who also oversees the Emerson College Polling Society.


NSA panel

Experts on the National Security Administration spoke at Emerson College's Cabaret on October 8, 2013. From left, author and journalist James Bamford, author and Emerson Journalism Professor Ted Gup, and Michael Mimoso, editor of Threatpost. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

Snowden, now a fugitive, became a household name last May after he leaked documents to British newspaper The Guardian showing the National Security Administration was conducting massive monitoring of Americans’ cell phone activity. Snowden worked as a security contractor for the NSA.

Ted Gup, professor in the Journalism Department, who was on the panel and is author of Nation of Secrets (Doubleday, 2007), said, “I’m torn,” when asked if Snowden is a hero.

“Some of what he’s done has performed a public service, and I’m not sure how that would have come to light but for his actions,” Gup said. “[But] he did sign a secrecy agreement.”



Ted Gup, professor in the Journalism Department, is the author of Nation of Secrets, which examines national security issues. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

“I’m kind of in Ted’s camp,” said panelist Michael Mimoso, editor of Threatpost, a security news website. “It’s both and neither.”

But NSA expert James Bamford, author of The Shadow Factory (Anchor, 2009) and Body of Secrets (Anchor, 2002), called Snowden “courageous.”

“Snowden did something that was very altruistic,” Bamford said. “He didn’t sell that information to a foreign power or terrorist organization or multinational company. He ended up living in the Moscow airport…for a month.”



James Bamford is widely regarded as an expert on the National Security Administration and has authored multiple books taking a critical look at the agency. He was recently featured on PBS' Nova. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

Mimoso said the Snowden case caught his attention because of its long-term effects on e-commerce and everyday communications.

“A lot of companies rely on these technologies the NSA supposedly inserted themselves into,” he said. “A lot of these encryption technologies protect … you every time you go to Amazon and put your credit card number in and send it across the Internet.”

“There’s a notion of trust in that product,” Mimoso continued, “that, for the most part, is gone. A lot of companies are taking a good, hard look at [that]. That’s going to be something worth watching in the next 6 to 12 months.”



Michael Mimoso, editor of Threatpost, a technology security news website. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

Bamford gave the audience a brief history lesson on the NSA, which was created by the government after World War I to monitor foreign telegrams.

“The NSA wasn’t created to eavesdrop on the U.S.,” Bamford said. “It was created to eavesdrop on people overseas.”

“It was fairly successful,” until 2001, he said, when the George W. Bush Administration found a “loophole” in the Patriot Act that allowed for warrantless wiretapping.

“Finally, when the Snowden revelations come out,” Bamford said, “we find out the NSA had been … eavesdropping domestically and lying to both the Congress and the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] about it.”

Gup noted that as of last April, FISC had approved all 1,789 applications from NSA requesting electronic surveillance except for one that had been withdrawn. “That tells you the degree of oversight,” he said. “I’d [also] argue there’s little congressional oversight.”

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