Depending on whom you ask, National Security Agency (NSA) contract employee Edward Snowden is either a hero or a traitor for leaking details about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs to the media.
Snowden on Sunday identified himself as the person who had provided The Guardian and other newspapers with details of a top-secret phone records data collection program by the NSA and another covert program called PRISM involving both the NSA and the FBI.
The revelations sparked widespread concern over dragnet-style domestic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. While President Barack Obama and members of his administration have justified the programs as necessary to combat terrorism, privacy and civil rights advocates have blasted them as being far too broad and overreaching.
In a video interview with the Guardian, Snowden said he had blown the whistle on the two programs because of concerns over the extensive nature of the surveillance being carried out by the government in the name of terrorism.
Snowden, who reportedly earns $200,000 working at the NSA as an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said he was willing to risk everything to inform the American people about the surveillance activities.
"I can't in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building," Snowden said in his interview. He is currently in hiding in Hong Kong and has said he would seek political asylum in Iceland or any country that is willing to have him.
Snowden's actions drew praise from the likes of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks fame and filmmaker Michael Moore as well as conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. He described Snowden in a Twitter message as a "real hero."
Daniel Ellsberg, the source of the famous Pentagon Papers leak to the New York Times more than 40 years ago described Snowden's release of the NSA papers as the most important leak in American history.
In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Ellsberg called Snowden a patriot whose actions give the U.S, an opportunity to "roll back a key part of what has amounted to an 'executive coup' against the U.S. constitution."
In a statement on the Campaign for Liberty blog, former GOP presidential contender Ron Paul said Snowden had done a "great service" by exposing the surveillance programs.
Meanwhile, a petition by Snowden's supporters to the White House seeking pardon for his actions appears to be gathering steam. By 5 p.m. ET Monday, the petition had already garnered more than 26,000 votes and looked well on its way to getting the 100,000 signatures needed for a formal White House response.
Many others, however, were critical of Snowden. In comments to CNN and other media outlets, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) blasted Snowden and called him a "defector" who should be punished to the "fullest extent of the law.
"If Edward Snowden did, in fact, leak the data, as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date," King said. "The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence.
Other lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), too, called for Snowden's immediate prosecution.
Obama and the director of the national intelligence agency, James Clapper, both previously criticized the leaker for exposing what they have claimed is information that could jeopardize national security interests.
This article, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is a hero to some, traitor to others, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.