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Is he a hero or villain? Jury's still out on leaker Snowden

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 8:27 p.m.

Edward Snowden's continent-jumping, hide-and-seek game seems like the stuff of a pulp thriller — a drama played out before a worldwide audience trying to decide whether he's a hero or a villain.

Snowden's disclosures about U.S. surveillance to The Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post caused an uproar in Washington that shows no signs of fading.

A petition asking President Obama to pardon Snowden has collected more than 123,000 signatures.

But congressional leaders beg to differ. The head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called Snowden's disclosure of top-secret information “an act of treason.” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is among those who have called Snowden a “traitor.”

The president has dismissed the 30-year-old as a “hacker” and pledged not to send military jets to snatch him and return him to the United States, where he faces espionage charges.

Snowden is possibly holed up in the wing of a Russian airport hotel reserved for travelers in transit who don't have visas to enter Russia. The formerly chatty self-admitted leaker hasn't been heard from since he landed in Moscow.

By disappearing in Russia, he loses “access to rehabilitate himself in the public's mind,” says William Weaver, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has written about government secrecy.

Others say Snowden's personality is irrelevant and doesn't change his major argument — that U.S. intelligence agencies have lied about the scope of their surveillance of Americans.

In a recent essay, Gene Healy, a vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, denounced pundits who have labeled Snowden a “grandiose narcissist” and a “total slacker.” He maintains that the former contractor's revelations are all that matters.

“The content of the message is far more important than the character of the messenger,” he wrote in the Washington Examiner.

Healy said “the most disturbing” part of Snowden's disclosures was the huge amounts of data collected on citizens. “The potential abuse of that information represents a grave threat to American liberty and privacy regardless of Snowden's character and motivations,” he wrote.

So far, America seems to be divided, according to polls taken in the first days after Snowden's leak of top-secret documents.

Many people initially applauded the former contractor for exposing what they saw as government spying on ordinary Americans. Since then, though, government officials have responded with explanations of the program and congressional testimony attesting to the value of surveillance in thwarting terrorist attacks.

In one poll, a June 12-16 national survey by the Pew Research Center and USA Today, 49 percent of those surveyed said the release of classified information about the NSA program serves the public interest, while 44 percent found it harmful. For those younger than 30, the gap was dramatically larger. That group said it's good for the public by a 60-34 percent margin, according to the survey.

Still, 54 percent said the government should pursue a criminal case against someone who leaked classified information about the program.

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