Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old National Security Agency contractor who admitted he was behind recent leaks of classified intelligence, has vaulted from obscurity to international notoriety, joining the ranks of high-profile leakers such as Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.
The fact that Snowden stepped forward to acknowledge his leaks to The Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers rather than wait for the FBI to find him impressed others who have disclosed government secrets.
"I consider it a magnificent act of civil disobedience," said Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who was prosecuted for leaking classified information to a journalist but wound up serving no prison time after the government's case fell apart. "He's a whistleblower."
Ellsberg was similarly impressed. He said in an interview: "There's no American official or former official that I admire more at this point. There's never been a more important disclosure to the American people than the leak [by Snowden] — and I include the Pentagon Papers in that. . . . He's clearly ready to give his life or his freedom for the interests of his country."
Others view Snowden's leaks of NSA and other documents to the The Post and the Guardian as a breach of his oath to protect classified information that may have harmed national security.
"The government is not going to hold back on this case," said Michael Vatis, a former associate deputy attorney general for national security in the Clinton administration. "This is a huge one."
Vatis, now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, said Snowden's breach was not comparable to Ellsberg's because Ellsberg revealed how the government was lying to the public about the prospects for success and the scale of casualties in the Vietnam War.