A debate rages as to whether National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is a hero or a heretic.
Or, is he a narcissist who was "turned" into a double agent by China or others? The facts are he leaked information that was only accessible by others above his pay grade.
He was a "drop box," speculated Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China in a TV interview. He said the volume of information and the timing of the leaks were both suspicious, coming right before President Obama met with new Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"He changed the global narrative of China hacking into the U.S. to the American government going after its own," Chang said. "That really derailed Obama's whole talk about cyber security."
Besides causing that China-U.S. diplomatic flap, Snowden revealed that U.S. phone and Internet companies have been deputized to hand over massive amounts of data about Americans to NSA and that the U.S. is gathering information and hacking citizens and entities in other nations.
His motivation aside, there is no debate that Snowden broke the law and should go to prison. But his methods are important and will determine what happens next. U.S. lawmakers have been demanding answers from intelligence officials on how Snowden, a high-school dropout, got his hands on the country's top-secret programs. Chang believes that it would be very difficult for Snowden to get the amount of data he got.
Clearly, the system was lax. Technology writer Farhad Manjoo wrote this week: "I'm sure glad he blew the whistle on the NSA's surveillance programs but wait, him? The NSA trusted its most sensitive documents to this guy? He's the IT guy, and not a very accomplished, experienced one at that... The scandal is that the government is giving guys like Snowden keys to the spying program."
Snowden got his "intel" while at Booz Allen Hamilton, recipient of billions in secret government contracts, even though he worked there for less than three months. After a brief employ, he went on medical leave, flew to Hong Kong then slipped away in a chartered jet to Moscow where he allegedly has been staying in an airport transit lounge.
Lawyer Jeff Toobin attacked Snowden this week as a narcissist who was delusional and believed he served a higher purpose even though the type of surveillance he "uncovered" is nothing new and not sinister.
"What, one wonders, did Snowden think the NSA did?" wrote Toobin in The New Yorker magazine. "Any marginally attentive citizen, much less NSA employee or contractor, knows that the entire mission of the agency is to intercept electronic communications. Perhaps he thought that the NSA operated only outside the United States; in that case, he hadn't been paying very close attention."
Others point out Snowden's hypocrisy. He fled to Hong Kong, a city-state in China, then to Russia allegedly en route to finding asylum in Ecuador. But not one of these jurisdictions upholds individual rights or the type of press and speech freedoms that he avows were the underpinnings for his decision to blow the whistle on his government.
This led former NSA official and critic William Binney, initially sympathetic, to state that "he performed a really great public service to begin with by exposing these [surveillance] programs [in the U.S.]" but his leaks that the U.S. was hacking into China began a transition "from whistle-blower to a traitor."
Still others, such as David Simon, a former police reporter and creator of The Wire, declared the whole business to be a "faux scandal." The media has displayed "an astonishing ignorance of the realities of modern electronic surveillance." He wrote that safeguards were in place and that, routinely in police or counter-terrorism work, information is collected but cannot be examined or monitored without sufficient probable cause and judicial review.
But President Obama has said that the fact that Snowden has information about national security and cyber defence measures has damaged the country. He also said fixing the system is a priority, not, as some hawks have demanded, aggressively pursuing Snowden.
Obama said "the United States won't be scrambling military jets to get a 29-year-old hacker back."
Preventing future lapses won't be easy. If Snowden was "turned," then access must be further restricted to those who are closely monitored. If he was merely fed information then there are others who must be rooted out.
Unfortunately, the trail's gone cold. There have been no sightings, and headlines in a Russian tabloid this week asked whether he existed or was really in Russia even though President Vladimir Putin has stated he suddenly turned up, is still there, is free to leave, and should.
Now a geopolitical football, China and Ecuador waded into the controversy along with Wikileaks fugitive Julian Assange who said his organization helped arrange the flight to Moscow and is trying to spirit him to Ecuador or another "friendly" jurisdiction.
But whatever conspiracy or opinion one holds, Edward Snowden won't be the last "leaker" or the last double agent, if that's what he is. Governments, companies and individuals must realize they should be more transparent but, at the same time, they should hire an army of nerds to hide truly essential information from rivals.
Frankly, he's no hero. He's a heretic, who purposely broke laws because he may be a narcissist, dupe, double-agent or all three.
Even if he turns himself in, the truth will elude. Figuring any of this out is not only difficult. It's impossible.