Snowden a hero or traitor? 2016 Democratic hopefuls declare what to do with whistleblower

The first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015 © Lucy Nicholson
Is former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden a hero for revealing the American government’s massive surveillance program or a traitor who betrayed his own country?

That was the question posed to all of the Democratic presidential candidates during the party’s first debate on Tuesday. The answers ran the gamut from bringing him home to imprisoning him for leaking classified information. But who said what?

Hillary Clinton: Facing the music

The former secretary of state and presidential frontrunner was clear in saying that Snowden broke the law and claimed that information he revealed fell into the wrong hands.

"He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower," she said. "He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all of the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that."

But Clinton went on to say that Snowden “stole very important information that has, unfortunately, fallen into a lot of the wrong hands … I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.”

Bernie Sanders: Bring Snowden home, but penalize him

The populist independent senator from Vermont was more willing to see Snowden return to the US for telling Americans what the NSA was doing, but wasn’t willing to say he should get off scot-free.

"I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being consideration," Sanders said.

“He did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that, but I do think what he did to educate us should be taken into account.”

Lincoln Chafee: Bring the hero home

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee was the only person on the state to say Snowden should return to the US without facing charges or some kind of punishment.

“I would bring him home," he said, adding that "the American government was acting illegally, that's what the federal courts have said."

Martin O’Malley: Don’t run to Russia

Aside from Clinton, former Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley took the most critical stance against Snowden, arguing that lives were risked.

"Snowden put a lot of Americans lives at risk. Snowden broke the law," he said. "Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here."

Jim Webb: Punting on Snowden

While all the other candidates made some kind of statement on Snowden, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb ducked the question and declined to put himself on either side of the “hero” or “traitor” label.

"I would leave his ultimate judgment to the legal system," he said. "Here's what I do believe: We have a serious problem in terms of the collection of personal information in this country."