One year later: Four reasons Edward Snowden remains a polarizing figure

Opinions about him are sharply divided one year after he began leaking details about the NSA's spying activities

Edward Snowden remains a polarizing figure in the U.S. on the one-year anniversary of the first published story based on his leaks about the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance practices.

Many people, especially younger Americans, see the former NSA contractor as a patriot for having the guts to expose what they perceive as illegal surveillance practices by the world's most powerful spy agency. Others, especially those within government and older Americans, see him as a traitor in exile whose revelations have done more to damage U.S. interests than anyone in recent memory.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden spoke via video link to the SXSW conference in April.

[See our timeline of stories about the Snowden saga and our slideshow highlighting his biggest revelations.]

Here are four reasons that may help explain the remarkable dichotomy.

A big focus on the NSA's domestic spying

The Snowden leaks that have garnered the most attention and stirred the most concern are those describing domestic NSA surveillance programs like Prism and the spy agency's bulk phone metadata collection effort. News of these programs have stoked considerable concern in the U.S. about the NSA engaging in dragnet domestic surveillance under the aegis of counterterrorism efforts that began after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The fact that these programs were being conducted in almost total secrecy and under questionable legal justification prior to the leaks only served to accentuate those concerns -- and made Snowden a hero for exposing them. Many of those who support him argue that the leaks have forced the government to acknowledge the existence of the programs and take steps to make them more transparent and accountable.

In a recent poll of 1,007 employed adults conducted by cloud security firm Tresorit, 55% felt that Snowden was right in revealing details about Prism, a program under which the NSA purportedly collects customer data from major U.S. Internet companies.

"On the one hand, [Snowden] told us something we always knew: Spies spy," said Steve Hunt principal analyst at Security Current. "Spying on specific national interests is assumed, expected, and probably universal. However, spying on a populous is extreme. Regular citizens don't qualify for surveillance unless they are associated in some other way with a security threat."

The impact on U.S. intelligence gathering has been downplayed

The vast majority of the documents released by Snowden have little to do with domestic spying. Instead they pertain to activities that many believe all spy agencies engage in as part of their missions. Among the documents released are those that describe how the NSA collects information on intelligence targets in other countries, who it targets, the agencies it partners with and other details.

By releasing information on adversaries and rivals, Snowden has seriously set back U.S. intelligence capabilities, says Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and CIA. "There is an absolutely genuine loss of American [intelligence] capability that has been identified by executive branch officials and legislative branch officials," Hayden said. "They have been specific to the point of saying we are aware of specific channels of information that [are] no longer available to us as a result of Snowden."

Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (to whom Snowden has been compared) revealed deliberative policy documents, Hayden noted. "Snowden is leaking stuff about how America collects secrets. Therefore it is infinitely more damaging" than the Pentagon Papers release in 1971, he said.

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