Set against this backdrop, Mr. Snowden’s self-stated motives might seem to place him among the angels, whistle-blower advocates say. He has come out publicly, rather than merely leak documents anonymously. He has claimed in a video interview no venal motives either to harm US security or enrich himself by selling documents to America’s enemies. Instead, he says, he seeks to help the public by exposing US surveillance programs that, in his and some others’ views, may vastly overreach the laws that set them in motion.
"I'm just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what's happening and goes, 'This is something that's not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong,' ” he told a reporter for the Guardian newspaper of London. “And I'm willing to go on the record to defend the authenticity of [top-secret surveillance program documents] and say, 'I didn't change these; I didn't modify the story. This is the truth; this is what's happening. You should decide whether we need to be doing this.' "
But even if Snowden, and perhaps thousands who have petitioned the White House on his behalf, consider him a whistle-blower and hero, his release of top secret documents obtained while he was a contractor for the National Security Agency could still lead to many years in federal prison, experts say.
Snowden may meet the moral definition of a whistle-blower, and he could still fall well short of the legal definition and end up in court, not unlike Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, a top secret study of US decision-making in the Vietnam war, even sympathetic legal experts say.