Hero or villain? History will decide

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Amid news stories last week about the “polar vortex” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s proclamation that “I am not a bully,” came word that a handful of activists responsible for nabbing over 1,000 FBI documents from an office outside Philadelphia almost 43 years ago finally fessed up.


The statute of limitations having long run out, five of the eight burglars stepped forward in conjunction with the publication of a book about the case. Now elderly and harmless, they stated they felt compelled to break into the two-man office in Media and grab files to make known the extent of FBI surveillance on ordinary Americans.


And what a trove they brought into the sunshine. The memos revealed how the FBI was attempting to infiltrate entirely lawful civil rights and anti-war groups and foment other dirty tricks. Perhaps the filthiest was a recording the FBI sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. of his sexual encounters with women other than his wife in the hope that its existence and the fear of exposure would plunge him into despair and prompt his suicide.


The thieves sent the pilfered documents on to news organizations, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, along with progressive political figures like George McGovern, the South Dakota U.S. senator and soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee, and U.S. Rep. Parren Mitchell of Maryland. And they got the wheels turning on Capitol Hill – hearings were held, votes were taken and, soon enough, the FBI was reined in from its more freewheeling ways under J. Edgar Hoover.


“We knew, of course, that we were breaking the law,” Bonnie Raines, one of the burglars, wrote in Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “but I think that sometimes you have to break laws in order to reveal something dangerous, and put a stop to it.”


In her essay, Raines cited Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower who is on the lam from authorities and has lately taken up residence in Moscow. “Democracy needs whistleblowers. Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot.”


Hero or villain, patriot or traitor. How exactly to define Snowden is a question that’s been asked quite a bit lately. Both The Guardian and The New York Times issued pleas for clemency for Snowden, saying he made the full extent of NSA’s invasions of privacy public knowledge. “Snowden deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight,” the Times said.


On the other hand, several heavy-hitters say that, no, Snowden deserves no mercy. While the FBI break-in decades ago revealed the ways the agency misused its authority domestically, those who oppose going easy on Snowden say that he divulged secrets that harm national security and imperil American lives. Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” last weekend, “I think Snowden has exacted quite a bit of damage and did it in a way that violated the law ... He has, by individual fiat, leaked very extensive information. ... I think he’s committed crimes.”


Like his counterparts from those long-gone, tumultuous days of the early 1970s, it could take 40 years, and the unfurling of history, before it becomes apparent whether Edward Snowden deserves our congratulations or our condemnation.


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