Snowden Was Justified

Next Debate Previous Debate
snowden Illustration by Thomas James

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Has Edward Snowden done the U.S. a great service? There is no doubt that his release of highly classified stolen documents has sparked an important public debate, even forcing what could be a major presidential overhaul of the NSA’s surveillance programs. But have his actions—which include the downloading of an estimated 1.7 million files—tipped off our enemies and endangered national security? Is Snowden a whistleblower, or is he a criminal?

  • Ellsberg90


    Daniel Ellsberg

    Fmr. U.S. Military Analyst & Pentagon Papers Whistleblower

  • Wizner90px


    Ben Wizner

    Legal Adviser to Edward Snowden & Attorney, ACLU

  • McCarthy90


    Andrew C. McCarthy

    Fmr. Federal Prosecutor & Contributing Editor, National Review

  • Woolsey90


    Ambassador R. James Woolsey

    Fmr. Director, CIA & Chairman, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

    • Moderator Image


      John Donvan

      Author & Correspondent for ABC News

See Results See Full Debate Video Purchase DVD

Read Transcript

Listen to the edited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Listen to the unedited radio broadcast

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Subscribe to the Podcast

For The Motion

Daniel Ellsberg

Fmr. U.S. Military Analyst & Pentagon Papers Whistleblower

Daniel Ellsberg is a former U.S. military analyst who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how the U.S. public had been misled about the Vietnam war. In 1959, after serving in the Marine Corps, he became a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation, and consultant to the White House and Defense Department, which he joined before transferring to the State Department to serve in Saigon. On return to RAND in 1967, Ellsberg worked on the top secret McNamara study of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68, which, after his release, would become known as the Pentagon Papers. His trial, on twelve felony counts, was dismissed on grounds of governmental misconduct against him. Ellsberg is the author of several books, including Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (2002). He was awarded the 2006 Right Livelihood Award and is a senior fellow of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Learn more


For The Motion

Ben Wizner

Legal Adviser to Edward Snowden & Attorney, ACLU

Ben Wizner, legal adviser to Edward Snowden, is the director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, which is dedicated to protecting and expanding the First Amendment freedoms of expression, association, and inquiry; expanding the right to privacy and increasing the control that individuals have over their personal information; and ensuring that civil liberties are enhanced rather than compromised by new advances in science and technology. He has litigated numerous cases involving post-9/11 civil liberties abuses, including challenges to airport security policies, government watchlists, extraordinary rendition, and torture. He has appeared regularly in the media, testified before Congress, and traveled several times to Guantánamo Bay to monitor military commission proceedings. Ben is a graduate of Harvard College and New York University School of Law and was a law clerk to the Hon. Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Learn more


Against The Motion

Andrew C. McCarthy

Fmr. Federal Prosecutor & Contributing Editor, National Review

Andrew C. McCarthy, a contributing editor at National Review and a senior fellow at National Review Institute, was a top federal prosecutor involved in some of the most significant cases in recent history. A former chief assistant U.S. attorney, he is best known for leading the prosecution against the Blind Sheik (Omar Abdel Rahman) and eleven other jihadists for waging a terrorist war against the U.S., including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and a plot to bomb New York City landmarks. After the 9/11 attacks, he supervised the U.S. attorney’s command-post near Ground Zero and later served as an advisor to the deputy secretary of defense. Decorated with the Justice Department’s highest honors, he retired from government in 2003. McCarthy is a frequent media commentator on legal affairs and national security and is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Willful Blindness (2008) and The Grand Jihad (2010).

Learn more


Against The Motion

Ambassador R. James Woolsey

Fmr. Director, CIA & Chairman, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Ambassador R. James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, chairs the board of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is a venture partner with Lux Capital Management. Previously, he served in the U.S. Government on five different occasions, where he held presidential appointments in two Republican and two Democratic administrations. In addition to heading the CIA, Woolsey served as ambassador to the Negotiation on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Vienna; under secretary of the Navy; and general counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services. Woolsey was also a vice president and officer of Booz Allen Hamilton and a partner at the D.C. law firm of Shea & Gardner, now Goodwin Procter, where he is currently Of Counsel. Presently specializing in both security and alternative energy issues, he serves on a range of government, corporate, and non-profit advisory boards and chairs several.

Learn more

Declared Winner: For The Motion

Online Voting

Voting Breakdown:

53% voted the same way in BOTH pre- and post-debate votes (24% voted FOR twice, 21% voted AGAINST twice, 8% voted UNDECIDED twice). 47% changed their minds (4% voted FOR then changed to AGAINST, 2% voted FOR then changed to UNDECIDED, 6% voted AGAINST then changed to FOR, 2% voted AGAINST then changed to UNDECIDED, 25% voted UNDECIDED then changed to FOR, 9% voted UNDECIDED then changed to AGAINST) | Breakdown Graphic

About This Event

Event Photos

PrevNext Arrows
    PrevNext Arrows


    • Comment Link David Laughing Horse Robinson Thursday, 09 April 2015 15:17 posted by David Laughing Horse Robinson

      The Kawaiisu Tribe of Tejon has discovered that the Justice Department was given highly confidential court document about the Federal Case we have in court. The only way they could have received those documents is if they were intercepting emails and phone calls between our attorney and us and between judges. This is highly illegal by violating the basic core of the U.S. Constitution and the Treaty between the U.S. and the Tribe.

      This has to stop and the violators need to be prosecuted. It is not about the legal taping but it is about all of the illegal taping of courts and cases.

    • Comment Link The Guardian Thursday, 12 March 2015 14:58 posted by The Guardian

      The bottom line is that I do not consent to my "private" digital communications being captured, recorded and stored for future reference sans a threshold of "probable cause". "NO privacy = No Freedom. I don't care what the Supreme Court says...I DO NOT CONSENT! I have unalienable rights to privacy that can't be infringed upon by anyone without my consent, as long as I do no harm to others or their property. PERIOD.

      Ed Snowden knew this and knew the extent to which the NSA et al had gone to deliberately suppress this information and therefore chose to expose the true nature and character of their surveillance through the Journalists. He did not indiscriminately disclose information he felt would do harm to others or their methods. See the documentary "Citizenfour".

    • Comment Link Dave Catleugh Monday, 29 December 2014 11:44 posted by Dave Catleugh

      He may have been right to draw attention to how, and what type of, information was being gathered, but to release all of those documents was an act of treason (in my opinion).

    • Comment Link Dea Tuesday, 12 August 2014 20:13 posted by Dea

      releasing 1.7 million documents into everyone's hands, without knowing their contents, is incredibly irresponsible and outweighs
      his claim to whistleblower justification.

    • Comment Link James Sunday, 13 July 2014 11:33 posted by James

      It is easy to blame Snowden instead of going after the Obama Administration and the Congressional oversight committees, who if they had been ding their jobs this would never have occurred. There was no oversight of the NSA and there is unlikely to be a single Member of Congress that knew exactly what the NSA was doing. Bring the heat on those whose responsibility it is to make sure these agencies work on behalf of the American people not to invade their privacy or destroy the 4th Amendment.

    • Comment Link Brian S. Thursday, 15 May 2014 14:10 posted by Brian S.

      Snowden indiscriminately leaked hundreds of thousands of documents, some of which endangered the security of our nation. He unwittingly compromised active intelligence programs and operations designed to help the USA in our ongoing conflict and competition with China, Russia, and Islamic fanatics bent on our destruction.

      He did so with little comprehension of the content or import of these documents. Snowden had _no idea_ of the enormous, rippling magnitude of his actions, behaving like a petulant and impulsive youth, not a folk hero.

    • Comment Link Manuel Gonzalez Saturday, 01 March 2014 19:04 posted by Manuel Gonzalez

      19:37:02 Ambassador Woolsey (68yrs.) attempts to explain away feeble legislative oversight of metadata mining by referring to congressmen “getting old and forgetting stuff….” after complimenting opponent Daniel Ellsberg (83yrs.) The 29 year old “hacker” was justified in telling the President’s regime that they had wrongly approved in secret the tracking of all of us on a massive scale and to collect and store the majority of the world's communications in the manner he chose. The winning side sealed the round by delivering President (52yrs.) Obama’s own words:” "One thing I am certain of, this debate will make our nation (229 yrs.) stronger”
      America remains current because our debates can draw wisdom from our diverse voices!

    • Comment Link Rudolf Thursday, 27 February 2014 12:09 posted by Rudolf

      I just realized this after watching the debate, Woolsey is the one who said that Snowden should be hanged by his neck till he's dead. I wouldn't trust anything he says at all if he expresses such violent sentiments towards whistleblowers:

      Disgusting that he was allowed to debate all after expressing such a heinous disregard for human life.

    • Comment Link Chris Rushlau Monday, 24 February 2014 14:24 posted by Chris Rushlau

      McCarthy, right at the end, made the main contextual point, I wish he had made it at the beginning. How do you run a war according to law? The answer has to be that there has to be some law for war or else any democracy would never escape its leaders' assertion of special wartime powers, which the leaders would whip up a war to justify.
      Let's say that the difference between law in peace and war is that in war there is a lot less reliable information available. E.g., you wear uniforms and you kill the person in the other uniform, whoever it is and whatever this person is doing (except surrendering, supposedly). You don't have time to take a statement.
      That would put the burden on us not getting into the wrong wars. The war on terror, so called, is bound up with the creation of the state of Israel. Fact? That creation seems highly questionable, given the rights of Jews versus non-Jews under Israeli law, and given that England had no right, nor the League of Nations, nor the UN, to give Palestine away to newcomers when these various trustees seized Palestine from the former proprietor, the Ottoman Empire. Yet this questioning cannot happen in the US. Up until 2001, that "fog of peace" was an elephant in the living room without disguise, accomplished with a nod and a wink, as when Senator Moynihan heroically got the UN General Assembly to reverse itself on the resolution calling Zionism racism: what was the Senator's argument--there was none, and yet if Jewishness is ethnicity, then Zionism is racism, and if Jewishness is a matter of choice, how can you identify Jews for purposes of, say, "right of return"? But none of that was discussed. Now, since 2001, we have the "fog of war" and now we cannot talk about this strategic context nor about the significance of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, nor elsewhere because it's all draped--this elephant in the living room--with a camouflaged banner: WAR.
      So my argument is that if we want to run our wars somewhat lawfully, we should examine the strategic premises for them. If we did so, we would cancel the war on terror before lunchtime.

    • Comment Link Orestis Madianos Saturday, 22 February 2014 16:01 posted by Orestis Madianos

      One of the arguments opponents to the issue of whether Snownen was justified, is that the state does indeed have the right to collect metada in the way that it currently is, in the interests of national security and that this data has not been in any way, shape or form abused.

      What is ignored in this defence is that, assuming it was OK for the state to collect this information, it should be the state and only the sate that has access to this data. The reality however is that it is no longer the state that is in sole possession and control of the data. Snowden was working for a private company when he accessed and took the data and it is these private companies that are not accountable or transparent as to the use they can potentially put this data to. Are we really saying that companies who it has been argued have a fiduciary responsibility to maximise profit for their shareholders will not put to good use some lucrative information they come across?

      And what about the armies of private contractors who are employed to analyse this information, can one be certain that none of them are in the payroll of foreign countries?

      The furore is not about Snowden letting the "other side" know of the US capabilities.

      The furore is because he told the electorate.

    • Comment Link Troels Andersen Thursday, 20 February 2014 21:19 posted by Troels Andersen

      Pedro: Because us citizens across the atlantic or pacific who live in peaceful countries (my country is even a close ally of the US) doesn't have a right to privacy, only Americans do? :o)

      I'll just leave you with this: the reasons you think Snowden should go to prison is the EXACT same reason that every country who has been a victim of NSA spying should offer him asylum. Think about that one for a minute :o)

      I think most people are tired of that 'them or us' mentality that America has and displays all the time (which these days just seems to be 'American' and 'Non-American'). It's disgusting in every concievable way imagineable.

    • Comment Link T. Toolan Thursday, 20 February 2014 14:14 posted by T. Toolan

      The saddest thing is that these people that defend the NSA don't understand what the big deal is. The ends never justify the means.

      If it's wrong to do, it is wrong to do.

    • Comment Link Pedro Wednesday, 19 February 2014 13:32 posted by Pedro

      Here's what I don't understand. If you think Snowden was justified to leak that the US government was secretly spying on Americans (which I do), then what do you think about him disclosing details about US spying on other countries?

      For disclosing the NSA domestic spying, Snowden should be applauded. For leaking information about American operations overseas, he should be sent to prison.

    • Comment Link John P. Hurabiell, Sr. Saturday, 15 February 2014 19:35 posted by John P. Hurabiell, Sr.

      Snowden is a criminal because he took a meat axe to the disclosure. Had he taken a scalpel and not endangered our security and many lives he would have been a hero. On balance he did more harm than good.

    • Comment Link Rick Saturday, 15 February 2014 01:09 posted by Rick

      I'm baffled that people are arguing that obeying orders is still of prime importance, even when a person is working for a government agency that is breaking the law.

      It is legally impossible to have a legal mandate to do an illegal action. Our intelligence agencies have gone rogue and laugh at any notion of accountability to the public.

      Our government has actively sabotaged products of our own computer industry, in the name of being able to push its surveillance powers to even greater ends. And to what purpose? Clearly not to deter any imminent threats. We're more than a decade beyond any point where any person seriously makes an argument that any terrorist group would use the Internet to communicate. No, this is all about domestic surveillance.

      And one has to suspect the motivations of people who think secret domestic surveillance is their rightful mission. We have a Bill of Rights for very good reasons.

    • Comment Link richard wilmot Friday, 14 February 2014 22:11 posted by richard wilmot

      Snowden is the biggest American hero since the Revolutionary War.

      Before Snowden we could not get standing to sue the traitorous, secret military junta government that has been spying on us for generations. Now we can sue. I have joined Rand Paul's suit and ACLU's.

      Before my government spies on me they need a warrant with MY name on it. Not 100,000,000 loyal Americans.

      Impeach Feinstein, Rogers and Obama. Court martial all NSA military officers and send them to Guantanamo Bay.

    • Comment Link Anonymschmoe Friday, 14 February 2014 08:07 posted by Anonymschmoe

      Can we really assume that Snowden isn't just a limited hangout, where suspicion was thrown a bone and the real secrets kept?

      What does it mean, that Founders' belief that the People should have military force equal to any standing army? How do state secrets comport with the People's power in this view?

      How many secrets are real strategic assets, and how many of them just cover some politician's flank? How would the latter comport with the idea of justice and distribution of power among the People as opposed to privilege for some pseudo-elected few? What when this analysis is extended to bureaucrats and other appointees with whom there isn't even a pretense of election?

      Assuming the Snowden Affair is for real, and not some kind of theatre, one must decide his hero/traitor status only after considering the importance in US law (starting with the Constitution and filtering down from there) of the whistleblower and the refusal to carry out illegal orders.

    • Comment Link Michael Alvarez Thursday, 13 February 2014 18:36 posted by Michael Alvarez

      Far Left = 100% government; Far Right = 0% government. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. NSA has absolute power. Congress fatally flawed by 17th amendment and Omnibus legislative process. Plank 2 communism is tax on labor as property = IRS. Plank 5 communism - Central Bank. Plank 10 communism = Central Government control of education = US Dept of Ed. Plank 8 Communism = Fed control of Labor ala laws that apply to the Tea Party but not labor unions: government as the largest employer and deployer ala food stamps/ welfare entitlements. Planks 6,7 and 9 Fed Control communication, Media, agriculture, factories, transportation. Compared to this: Snowden was justified.

    • Comment Link Rose Thursday, 13 February 2014 18:35 posted by Rose

      Why is any of this collection of info on anyone meaningful these days when we have a regime that is purposely giving away the country to our enemies anyway? Look at how the policies towards Iran, Syria, the knowing opening of that "Arab Spring" to the most aggressive thugs who would logically fill in the created void and act against our traditional allies and thus against us; open our justice system to the enemies while threatening our own troops, in the fog of war, of going under some world court if they don't adhere to the dangerous rules of engagement resulting in real harm to themselves; keeping borders open for all kinds of obvious transfer of arms while unchecked all negate any over the top surveillance on just about anyone....but esp. our own honest citizens.

      When we actually do get official warnings from other international intelligence agencies (like the Russians) to watch people like the Tsarnaev brothers we not only dismiss them but allow them to travel to areas of known terrorist training and return with seeming no worry to our "watchers"; there was also the Times Square bomber as well who, after thankfully failing in his task, still made it as far as getting onto a plane and would have been successful in getting away in just a few minutes more. There is no real proof that any of this massive spying on anyone available due to latest technology has stopped such real time threats. Instead human nature has responded by using such casually scooped up info to, say, spy on one's ex or anyone who elicits enough curiosity from any of the thousands doing the watching in privacy. There is then the case, during a time when the current regime is using powerful agencies of govt to punish with grave harm to civil rights, where info is stored for possible future malevolent use. Actually since lies or photo-shopping can be substituted for facts in order to create one's own scenario to use against the powerless who is to know what gathered info is to be believed? IOW, who can you trust? When privacy can be found in the Constitution for any individual to slaughter other vulnerable human beings and be protected from interference, not finding privacy for the real civil rights within the Constitution appears to be rather Orwellian to say the least.

    • Comment Link Mark Walker Wednesday, 12 February 2014 20:40 posted by Mark Walker

      It isn't necessary to kill people to gut our federal democratic
      republic. Continued complacency about our liberties and Constitutional rights is sufficient.
      If J. Edgar had today's NSA technology, or COINTELPRO hadn't been turned out by the Media, Pa burglary, we'd be living in an ironclad tyranny today.
      We've been on the slippery slope since at least WWII. Our liberties have devalued right along with our currency.
      Yet, the populace and electorate remains asleep...

    Leave a comment

    Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.