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How to Handle Scandal: Edward Snowden

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What we know:  Edward Snowden was a former intelligence contractor at the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA). He worked in several different capacities for the agencies, mostly in IT security and ethical hacking. Snowden leaked to The Guardian newspaper large amounts of information on mass surveillance programs carried out by the U.S. and British governments. These programs include Tempora, XKeyscore and PRISM.

Sometimes events in the news – even dicey ones – find their way into the classroom. When this happens, it's important to decide what you can and cannot say as an educator.

Individual schools and districts may have policies guiding teacher responses to sensitive issues, and we urge you to consult with an administrator before addressing these topics. At the very least, however, we'd like to help you fully understand the story. How to Handle Scandal features will appear when the news dictates and will be updated as details change.

  • Tempora - Based in the United Kingdom, Tempora examines the phone and Web traffic and commutations in cooperation with several larger, unidentified corporations.
  • XKeyscore - Searches for and analyzes a user’s data from the Internet to gain access to emails, listen to calls made on smartphones, and send alerts from IP addresses and email accounts that are being tracked.
  • PRISM - Gathers Web communications from companies such as Facebook and Google by request.

The fallout:  Reactions to Snowden’s disclosures have been mixed, with people either condemning or applauding his actions. He faces two charges of espionage and one charge in connection with theft of government property.

Edward Snowden

President Obama said he had called for a review of surveillance operations well before Snowden leaked any information, and he defended a (perfectly legal) National Security Agency monitoring program that collects Americans’ phone and Internet data. Nevertheless, the President has announced reforms to the system that will make the collection activities more transparent and help citizens feel confident that there are safeguards against abuse. 

Currently, Snowden resides in an undisclosed location in Russia, where he has been granted asylum. The situation has added tension to the U.S. government’s already-weakened relationship with Russia.

In a May 2014 televised interview with NBC's Brian Williams, Snowden shared the following:

  • He described himself as a trained spy, rather than a low-level analyst or "hacker," as U.S. officials have described him.
  • He views himself as a patriot fighting for individual freedoms. Snowden told CNN, "Being a patriot means knowing when to protect your country, knowing when to protect your Constitution, knowing when to protect your countrymen, from the violations of and encroachments of adversaries. And those adversaries don't have to be foreign countries."
  • Snowden told Williams his whistleblowing was necessary because "the Constitution of the United States had been violated on a massive scale" by the NSA. Prior to leaking information to The Guardian, he had reported his concerns to the NSA's general counsel office, but those concerns, he said, were dismissed.
  • While he would like to return home, Snowden said because he was charged under the Espionage Act, he has no chance to make a public defense of his case. "You are not allowed to argue based on all the evidence in your favor, because that evidence may be classified," he explained. Snowden's legal adviser agreed that Snowden could not return to the states under the current Espionage Act charges, which would make it impossible for him to argue that his disclosures served the common good.
  • Therefore, although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has urged Snowden to “man up” and return home, he is unlikely to do so without some sort of negotiated settlement or granting of amnesty.


Potential issues to discuss in class:

  • Is Snowden a traitor or hero in your eyes? Make your case.
  • Do you think that Snowden deserves protection as a whistleblower?
  • Do you think the U.S. government has a solid espionage case against him?
  • Should the U.S. offer Snowden amnesty so that he can return home?
  • Does the information Snowden released on mass public surveillance make you mistrust the government, or does it make you feel safer?
  • How much do you know about the National Security Agency (NSA), its activities and the laws that give the agency its powers? For example, read the NSA’s description of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). (It was FISA-related activities about which Snowden leaked information.)
  • Do you feel the NSA’s monitoring activities are necessary for detecting and disrupting terrorist plots?


Article by Jason Cunningham, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
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Updated 05/29/2014