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Will Time’s Person of the Year Be Edward Snowden?

In a few short weeks, Time Magazine will announce its 2013 Person of the Year.  The past choices of the venerable news magazine have certainly been the most famous amongst us, and in some cases the most infamous, from peacemakers, popes, and presidents to inventors, astronauts, and despots. Can you imagine any thread that could possibly link persons like Pope John Paul II (1994), Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) and Mohandas Gandhi (1930) to the likes of Adolf Hitler (1938), Josef Stalin (1939, 1942) and the Ayatollah Khomeini (1979)?  There’s only one: They were all recognized with Time’s most distinguished honor.

Like every other preceding year, 2013 has brought triumph, tragedy and the unprecedented to our lives. A pope resigned for the first time in nearly 600 years, only to be replaced by a more than humble priest from the Americas. The first African-American president was sworn into office for a second term, only to have his signature policy initiative undermined by a lousy website and promises that won’t be kept. And a Syrian dictator in a bid to save his wicked reign from a bloody civil war unleashed chemical weapons on his own people and seemed to think nothing of it. As notable as all of those persons and others may be, they honestly don’t compare to the one person who was on no one’s radar screen until he truly upended the world in 2013. His name? Edward Snowden.

For some he is a celebrated hero who has exposed the secrets of a superpower.  To others he’s a traitor who betrayed his position and his country. Regardless of your view of him, one thing is for sure – in 2013 no one person knocked over more dominoes faster, in more directions, or with greater implications to the world, than Edward Snowden.

For some he is a celebrated hero who has exposed the secrets of a superpower. To others he’s a traitor who betrayed his position and his country. Regardless of your view of him, one thing is for sure – in 2013 no one person knocked over more dominoes faster, in more directions, or with greater implications to the world, than Edward Snowden.

The former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor for the NSA exploded on the international scene via a series of interviews with Glen Greenwald, an American reporter with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, in early June. Armed with what can only be called a treasure trove of some of the most sensitive and guarded secrets by the NSA and American intelligence agencies, in 2013 his actions left no corner of the globe untouched. U.S. Intelligence leaders, both current and former, have made no bones about the impact of what Snowden has done. In a recent 60 Minutes profile, outgoing Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Morrell explained that Snowden’s breach of trust with his employers was the single greatest leak, and most damaging to America’s national security and intelligence interests.

Edward Snowden Berlin 2013 PRISM Demo

Demonstration against the NSA’s PRISM program in Berlin, organized by the Pirate Party, during United States president Barack Obama’s visit in June 2013. Hero to some, traitor to others, there’s little doubt that Snowden shook the world. Photo by Mike Herbst

That’s a stunning statement by itself. Think of all of the persons who have betrayed America’s security interests. From Benedict Arnold to Aldrich Ames, Edward Snowden topped them all armed only with his conscience, his computer savvy, his laptop and thumb drives. His actions have left the Obama Administration and the nation’s intelligence apparatus embarrassed and scrambling in an almost Keystone Cops manner trying to deny, justify, explain and “spin” the reasons for saying and doing what Snowden’s revelations revealed that they were doing. As a result, American allies are fuming that their phones have been monitored by the NSA, while the enemies of the U.S. are overtly grateful to have been granted access to the very information that tells them the methods and extent of the United States’ intelligence gathering about them and others around the world.

While the treasonous actions of Benedict Arnold, Aldrich Ames and others like them cost the lives of American service personnel (military, intelligence, etc.), Snowden’s have shaken nation-state capitols around the world and will transform intelligence-gathering agencies for generations. All you have to do is look at the proposed legislation being offered by members of Congress to overhaul and restrict the NSA from doing what it does, the furious letters of American IT companies whose networks were breached by the NSA, and the less-than-diplomatic speech coming from the nation’s allies to understand how one man could change everything.

All you have to do is look at the proposed legislation being offered by members of Congress to overhaul and restrict the NSA from doing what it does, the furious letters of American IT companies whose networks were breached by the NSA, and the less-than-diplomatic speech coming from the nation’s allies to understand how one man could change everything.

What Snowden’s actions created were not simple ripples, as some might like to believe. No, this is something bigger. I would call it a wave, maybe not a full-fledged tsunami that wipes out everything, but rather a good sized wave that crashed onto the intelligence-gathering beachheads around the world and left everything not just soaking wet, but in a disarray that has people scrambling to put all the pieces back together so that business as usual can continue. As anyone knows who has built a sandcastle or two, with the waves coming in around you, you can’t hold those forces back. And no castle ever gets rebuilt the same way after the water has come across the shoreline.

When someone unleashes those forces, as Snowden did earlier this year (and continues to do with ongoing leaks of information), there’s no disputing the difference that individual makes to the fabric of our history as a nation and as a globalized community. Regardless of his next move, or physical residence, Snowden will forever be an utterly divisive figure – cheered by some, pilloried by others. His actions have truly changed everything, and when you do something like that, you become Person of the Year…

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...