Hero or traitor, Edward Snowden can now add one thing to his resume: award-winner.
The former National Security Agency contractor-turned-fugitive will be awarded the 2014 Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize for his role in exposing intimate details of the government's sweeping surveillance programs, the awards committee announced Monday. Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, a Snowden confidant who has helped disseminate the top-secret government documents the fugitive absconded with last year, was jointly recognized.
"We have selected Edward Snowden and Laura Poitras for their work in exposing the NSA's illegal and unconstitutional bulk collection of the communications of millions of people living in the United States," the Ridenhour selection committee said in a statement. "Their act of courage was undertaken at great personal risk and has sparked a critical and transformative debate about mass surveillance in a country where privacy is considered a constitutional right."
Snowden, who has also been nominated this year for the Nobel Peace Prize, is a natural choice for the left-leaning group, which has honored in recent years journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas and Thomas Drake, a former NSA official who also exposed secrets kept by the spy agency. The awards are named for Ron Ridenhour, a Vietnam veteran who helped expose the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians by U.S. soldiers at My Lai in 1968.
The 30-year-old computer technician achieved overnight notoriety in June of last year, when major publications around the world began publishing top-secret NSA documents he downloaded while working for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii. Shortly before the leaks began, Snowden fled the country for Hong Kong and, eventually, Russia, where he currently remains under temporary asylum.
While in Hong Kong, Snowden met with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald to hand over thousands of his secret files, the opening move in what snowballed into a yearlong international debate over the proper role of government surveillance. Snowden's leaks have been widely credited with forcing President Obama and Congress to consider and implement pending reforms to the NSA's spy programs.
As much fanfare as Snowden has attracted since his NSA leaks first surfaced, he has also earned heavy condemnation from proponents of a forceful, agile intelligence community. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers has perhaps been Snowden's most vocal critic, having frequently derided him as a "traitor" who has jeopardized national security by disclosing classified government secrets. The Michigan Republican has also suggested that Snowden's current residency indicates he could be operating as a spy for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Snowden's winning of the Ridenhour award coincides with his increased willingness to maintain a visible, public profile, even as his whereabouts in Russia remain a mystery. After several months of staying below the radar—even as a breathless deluge of stories made possible by his leaks continued—Snowden has remained relevant in 2014 by participating in online discussions and appearances via video stream at major conferences, such as SXSW.
On Saturday, Snowden again appeared via video to a crowd attending Amnesty International's annual human-rights meeting in Chicago to again warn of the potential dangers of government collection of telephone and Internet "metadata," a conversation that Greenwald joined—also by webcast—from Brazil.
Poitras, a MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient, is believed to be one of only two people, along with Greenwald, with access to the complete trove of Snowden files. She has been vocally critical of post-9/11 government surveillance.
While noting its appreciation for Greenwald and other journalists who have helped lift the veil on the NSA's spying practices, the Ridenhour committee said it "wanted to salute the role that Poitras has played in this story, as we feel that her contribution has not been adequately recognized by the American media."
Snowden and Poitras will be awarded the Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling on April 30 at the National Press Club in Washington, though it is unlikely either will attend. Snowden faces immediate arrest if he steps foot on American soil, and Poitras currently resides in Berlin.