Lawmakers see Edward Snowden as a leaker, not as a hero

Lawmakers in both parties Wednesday said they do not view Edward Snowden as a hero, as the NSA leaker reemerged with new charges against the government and defiant vows to fight extradition. [WATCH VIDEO]

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), a Republican with a long history of championing whistle-blower protections, said Snowden “surely isn’t a hero” and should be prosecuted for what intelligence experts have said is one of the most serious leaks in U.S. history.

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“I don’t know exactly the law and I don’t know the extent to which he violated whatever law is there, but he’s got to be prosecuted,” Grassley said.

Some maintained Snowden did the country a favor by publicizing previously unknown domestic spying programs and should not be considered a traitor, though they stopped short of declaring him a hero.

“Quite frankly, it helps people like me become aware of a situation that I wasn’t aware of before because I don’t sit on that Intelligence Committee,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told MSNBC Wednesday. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said that while it appears Snowden broke the law, his actions don’t deserve the harsh response from some on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t think it’s raised to the level of sedition, treason, defector ... [or] traitor,” Grijalva said. “Is there culpability on his part? Yes. But does it raise to that level? I don’t think so.”

Still others say it’s simply too early to tell.

“I’m going to wait to have more facts before I draw conclusions,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Snowden, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton and the CIA, said in a new interview Wednesday that he saw himself as neither a traitor nor a hero, but as an American. 

At the same time, he cast himself as someone who had leaked his country’s sensitive secrets about telephone and Internet data mining to protect private citizens in the U.S. and other countries from an intrusive government. 

“Last week the American government happily operated in the shadows with no respect for the consent of the governed, but no longer,” he told the South China Morning Post. “Every level of society is demanding accountability and oversight.”

Some of Snowden’s comments seemed designed to appeal to the governments in China and Hong Kong. 

He said he has information that shows the U.S. since 2009 has been hacking into computers in China and Hong Kong — a charge that comes as the Obama administration and U.S. companies are accusing China of hacking. 

Snowden said U.S. targets included a Chinese university and public officials, businesses and students.

In leaking the information, he said he wanted to demonstrate “the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries.”

He also said he would fight any efforts to extradite him to face charges in the United States, and that he would stay in Hong Kong “until I am asked to leave.”

His exact whereabouts are unclear.

“I have had many opportunities to flee Hong Kong, but I would rather stay and fight the U.S. government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law,” he told the paper.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are among the lawmakers who have said Snowden committed treason. 

Boehner called him a traitor, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) says he’s a “defector.” 

The revelation of the NSA’s spying programs occurred as the Obama administration is already facing abuse-of-power charges for the Justice Department’s monitoring of journalists’ phone records and the targeting of conservative groups by the Internal Revenue Service.

Snowden’s actions have generated support from a strange combination of liberal advocates, conservative activists and civil-liberties groups, who say the NSA programs tread too deeply on constitutional rights. 

Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and conservative radio host Glenn Beck have both labeled Snowden a “hero,” and Tea Party activists on Wednesday held an event outside the Capitol in which they “flogged” a likeness of King “for his treachery” in criticizing Snowden.

GOP Rep. Steve Womack (Ark.) on Wednesday highlighted the delicacy of the politics swirling around the Snowden episode, saying he feels “about the same way Boehner does” about the young leaker, but is using softer language so as not “to inflame the situation anymore than otherwise necessary.”

Freshman GOP Rep. Richard Hudson (N.C.) said that Snowden is “certainly no hero,” but wouldn’t go so far as to say the 29-year-old was a traitor. 

“It’s bad that our enemies know the information,” Hudson told The Hill. “I’m not sure it’s so bad that the American people and the Congress are having a debate about it.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) offered indirect praise of Snowden on Wednesday, saying “he made his choice over ... the Bill of Rights,” which “is an important thing.”

Still, even the Senate’s libertarian firebrand declined to cast judgment on Snowden’s actions on the whole. 

“We’ve had other people in our history that have been glorified over civil disobedience,” he said, “and so how you judge him and how he made the judgment to be civilly disobedient is something I don’t want to make a judgment on.”

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) appeared to struggle Wednesday over whether Snowden was a whistle-blower. 

“What’s a whistle-blower and what’s someone who [has] leaked information that could be harmful to some of our American assets who are trying to protect American citizens? I don’t know the answer to that,” he said.

— Molly K. Hooper, Jordy Yager, Jennifer Martinez and Jeremy Herb contributed.

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