POLITICS
09/02/2015 11:43 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2015

Edward Snowden, American Hero? His Greatest Defender And Greatest Critic Hash It Out.

It's as close to a whistleblowing cage match as we're going to get...

WASHINGTON -- More than two years after former National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. government’s mass surveillance program, his chief critic and his chief defender met on stage Wednesday morning at the annual Hewlett-Packard cybersecurity conference.

There was no bloodshed, raised voices or thrown tables as Glenn Greenwald, the journalist to whom Snowden provided his trove of documents, and former NSA Director Keith Alexander squared off. But even after two years of public outcry -- culminating with Congress voting this year to end the sweeping data programs Snowden revealed in 2013 -- tension was palpable when the whistleblower’s name came up.

“Around the world, he’s regarded overwhelmingly as a hero,” Greenwald said. “He came to established media outlets... he deserves our collective gratitude for enable us to have the discussion that we’re having.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alexander, who led the NSA through the tumultuous revelations, didn’t agree. 

“I see it slightly differently,” he said after a pregnant pause.

“You say you took an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic... he did not do that,” Alexander said. “So as a consequence, I think he should face justice with a jury of his peers.” 

Alexander did say he thought Snowden could have achieved a similar end if he had simply revealed the court documents justifying what was known as the “215” program, which sweeps up the telephone data of millions of Americans, including the numbers they dial and the length and time of the calls. But rather than just revealing the court records, Snowden provided Greenwald with what Greenwald said were "many thousands" of documents on the program, as well as documents on intricacies of other programs and operations of the NSA, other intelligence agencies and U.S. allies. 

“If he had taken the one court document and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do’... I think this would be a whole different discussion,” Alexander said. “I do think he had the opportunity [to be] what many could consider an American hero.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misquoted a Department of Defense estimate of the number of documents Snowden provided Greenwald. That figure has been replaced with an approximate figure from Greenwald.

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