Edward Snowden is an “unprincipled traitor,” retired Col. Peter Mansoor maintained in a debate last week. Across the stage, Rodd Monts argued the opposite: Snowden is a hero.
“Snowden chose to take a very courageous step to address what he saw as a grave constitutional matter, a mass surveillance on U.S. citizens,” said Monts, field director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union. “He took that step to expose a system that needed to be changed.”
Monts and Mansoor, who served as executive director to Gen. David Petraeus during the Iraq War, presented opposing views on Snowden in a debate held by the Alexander Hamilton Society Oct. 11. About 60 people attended the event in Phillips Auditorium.
“It was a very interesting pairing, a member of the ACLU and a former colonel,” said sophomore Pearce Pomerleau, vice president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. “I thought both made very good points.”
Monts focused his opening statements on Snowden’s disclosure of classified documents that revealed government surveillance practices. He said Snowden blew the whistle on a government spying on its own citizens. Monts added that the alleged damage from Snowden’s actions remains unproven.
“Some people would say that Snowden’s actions endangered innocent people or that he has given information to foreign governments, but there is no evidence to prove that,” he said. “The government hasn’t been able to point to a single instance in which his disclosures put anyone in harm’s way.”
Mansoor, however, said most of the 1.5 million documents Snowden released had to do with other security programs. He argued that the disclosure is far from harmless.
“The vast majority of the documents he stole have nothing to do with impacting individual private interests,” Mansoor said. “They, instead, pertain to military, defense, and intelligence programs of great interest to America’s adversaries.”
Mansoor said Snowden isn’t a whistleblower and isn’t protected by the 2007 Whistleblower Protection Act, which excludes people, like Snowden, who work for the National Security Agency.
“Had Snowden limited his exposures of NSA snooping to the collection of metadata on U.S. citizens, he would be more deserving of our sympathy,” Mansoor said. “But by revealing the extent of U.S. eavesdropping on foreign countries and their citizens, he has done real damage to the country’s national security.”
“He doesn’t deserve our sympathy; he deserves a trial,” he said.
Monts, however, said Snowden didn’t see a better route for exposing what he thought was a problem.
“Edward Snowden didn’t feel that going to government authorities would result in any productive action, given the past treatment of these matters before the courts and in the legislative branch,” Monts said.
But Mansoor said Snowden could have made the disclosure in compliance with the Intelligence Whistleblower Act of 1998.
“Had Edward Snowden gone through this route, it’s likely he would have gotten us here before the appropriate branch in the U.S. government,” he said. “Balancing security with privacy should be a matter for our elected officials, not for an unaccountable private contractor who has decided on his own what is legal and what is not.”
During a time of Q&A after the debate, the speakers found a few points of common ground. Monts said he recognized the government’s need to collect intelligence, and Mansoor said he agreed with Monts that bringing forth issues concerning privacy has done good. He said he would have taken Monts’ position, if those were the only disclosures Snowden had made.
Afterward, junior Razi Lane said he thought Mansoor won the debate.
“The idea that an individual can come forward and decided completely arbitrarily what documents he’s going to release and at what time he’s going to release them — I find that to be rather unsettling,” he said. “I feel as though Col. Mansoor did a very good job indicating the national security of the United States, in respect to his position.”
Pomerleau agreed: “I personally agree more with the colonel and his position, and I thought he came with more evidence in hand, but I also definitely sympathize with some of the points Mr. Monts was making.”
For now, Snowden is hiding in Russia. If he returns to the U.S., Monts said, he’ll face a trial and probably a life sentence, unless he’s pardoned.