Edward Snowden: fleeing a furious White House

On the run for leaking details of America's snooping operations around the world, has Edward Snowden betrayed his people or liberated them?

So where on earth is Edward Snowden? Having left Hong Kong supposedly bound for Russia, the man responsible for "the biggest intelligence breach in recent US history" failed to make an expected connecting flight to Cuba, let alone get to Ecuador, where he has requested political asylum. The Huffington Post reported that he was last seen "wandering aimlessly round the duty-free section" of Moscow airport. President Vladimir Putin confirmed that the whistleblower is indeed in Moscow and refused a request by the US to expel him.

Snowden's perambulations have "set off a diplomatic game of cat and mouse", with the Obama administration scrambling to find a way of repatriating him to face espionage charges, says the FT. US-China relations have been put at risk: the White House issued "a blistering criticism" of Beijing for letting him leave Hong Kong. Now his continued presence in Moscow threatens to exacerbate the incipient Cold War developing between the two countries. No one in Washington believes Putin's claim that Snowden hasn't been interviewed by Russian security services.

When Snowden, 29, left his $200,000 job and girlfriend in Hawaii to travel to Hong Kong with the four laptops that enabled his explosive expos, he must have expected "he would never live in the United States as a free man again", says CNN. The debate still rages over whether he is a traitor or a hero (see below). But what made him do it?

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A neighbour in Hawaii blames "an over-active Mother Teresa gene". Yet from his published interviews, Snowden comes across as "thoughtful, morally engaged, and deeply committed to his beliefs", says The New York Times. He probably was sincere when he declared he could not "in good conscience" allow America to jeopardise basic liberties with its "massive surveillance machine".

Snowden was, from the start, an "unlikely member of America's vast intelligence corps", says The Independent. A high-school drop-out, he served briefly in the US army reserves before being invalided out in 2004 when he broke both his legs in an accident. He first encountered the US National Security Agency (NSA) as a security guard working at a secret facility near his home in Maryland. It was his mastery of computers that got him noticed and promoted within the intelligence ranks, despite his lack of formal qualifications. By 2007, he had a post with diplomatic cover in Geneva. Two years later, he left the CIA and began working at the NSA as an outside contractor with Booz Allen.

Snowden hoped the Obama administration might reverse the security policies introduced under President Bush. It was when he saw that "nothing was changing quite the opposite" that he decided to take action. Whether brave, foolhardy or treacherous, "his saga is far from over".

Is this "the most important leak in US history"?

Initially sceptical about the scoop, Greenwald had no idea what Snowden looked like beyond the fact that he would be carrying a Rubik's Cube. "I had expected a 60-year-old grizzled veteran, I thought this is going to be a wasted trip'. After an hour, I completely believed him."

Snowden's release of material "is the most important leak in US history", says Daniel Ellsberg, who 40 years ago leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing how the public had been misled over Vietnam, in The Guardian. It reveals "nothing less than an executive coup against the American constitution". The US government has awarded itself the right to become "the United Stasi of America".

He's right, says Douglas Rushkoff on CNN.com. Snowden's was "a particularly human act of heroism", revealing just how far technology is eroding our freedoms. "It wasn't just fear keeping people from talking about the growing cybersurveillance state, but a sense of inevitability." In speaking out, Snowden has made a stand against "the structural tyranny of runway technology. Thank heavens our intelligence agencies are staffed by people like him, not robots".

Give me a break, says Richard Cohen in The New York Times. It's hardly a news story that the government monitors email and phone calls for national security. And while Prism was a "secret" programme, members of Congress approved it, and "safeguards were built in". Snowden hoists himself on his own petard by failing to cite a single example of abuse. "He's not paranoiac; he's merely narcissistic", and, far from being one of America's "most consequential whistleblowers", history will most likely forget him.