Edward Snowden & The Culper Spy Ring

Edward Snowden & The Culper Spy Ring

Hero or Traitor?

Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE. Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation. Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men. — Sun Tzu The Art of War

The recent actions of Edward Snowden have been heralded as some who believe he is a hero of freedom, while others condemn him for being a traitor. Snowden’s ideology mimics the ideology associated with past spies such as the Culper Spy Ring, but under critical analysis this association is extremely superficial. Whereas the Culper Spy Ring was a device for winning a war, Edward Snowden’s actions were a unilateral decision to reveal classified activities which had the potential to harm US citizens and interests across the globe.

Edward Snowden & The Culper Spy Ring
Nathan Hale’s Execution for Espionage Public Domain

The Culper Spy Ring was a creation George Washington. The purpose of this ring was to outwit and defeat a larger more formidable force (British) (Kilmeade & Yaeger, 2013). The Culper Spy Ring consisted of volunteers who believed in the cause of defending freedom and a fledgling nation. These volunteers came from many trades and used these trades for infiltration and intelligence communication and gathering. For example, physician James Jay created invisible ink to encrypt communications between operatives. The network of spies consisted of shopkeepers, tavern owners, and many ordinary citizens (Kilmeade & Yaeger, 2013).

In contrast to the efforts of the Culper Spy Ring, Edward Snowden was not acting in an effort to win a war or to protect lives but by his own admission he became a whistleblower because he was,

“experiencing a crisis of conscience of sorts,” as Anderson remembered. But Snowden also learned a valuable lesson: “Trying to work through the system,” he told Risen, would “only lead to punishment.” (Reitman, 2013)

Snowden’s crisis of conscience is best realized in his statement,

“If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous.” ‘Wow, could he be part of enabling this system? Could he continue to do that and live with himself?’” “It was seeing a continuing litany of lies from senior officials to Congress — and therefore the American people — and the realization that Congress . . . wholly supported the lies,” he said. “Seeing someone in the position of James Clapper — director of National Intelligence — baldly lying to the public without repercussion is the evidence of a subverted democracy.” (Reitman, 2013)

Despite the fact that Snowden claims he was acting in the interest of democracy, his decision to release classified information was a clear violation of the oaths that he swore to protect the United States and its democracy. Looking back to the Culper Spy Ring, one realizes that the necessity for spies is without question. At the Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776), it is believed that the British learned of the poorly defended Jamaica Pass by a loyalist spy (Kilmeade & Yaeger, 2013). Benedict Arnold’s betrayal was also discovered by the Culper Spy Ring (Kilmeade & Yaeger, 2013). These examples show that without the use of spies were vital for United States in winning the American Revolution and maintaining a democratic nation (George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2014) (Kilmeade & Yaeger, 2013).

Perhaps Snowden acted with genuine concern for democracy but his actions seem to contradict this concern. Much like the Revolutionary War, the enemy is not always detectable or obvious. There were many loyalists especially in areas such as New York (George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2014). The same technology that Snowden says he was using to spy on citizens and foreign nationals is the same technology that terrorists and international criminals use to carry out their endeavors. Many of the enemies of democracy have spies within democratic nations, this fact is irrefutable. What is difficult for people to understand is the mechanism of the spying. Because the government is using these spying techniques and they are still considered secret, the operations methodology is not released. Because Snowden’s version of the spying is all that is known, it is easy to conjecture that the government is watching everything and everyone. It is much more likely that the government is using computers to identify keywords and phrases that would indicate a need for investigation. While this is still an intrusion of privacy it is far less invasive than a McCarthy Hearing. It is also one of the only means of acquiring intelligence from dangerous terrorists or other spies that hide in within society. In this sense, rather than protecting democracy, Snowden has revealed a strategic advantage and therefore damaged the ability of the government to provide protection for a free democratic state. For this reason alone, Snowden should be considered a traitor and prosecuted as such. Snowden’s unilateral decision for all Americans, based on his personal ethical views, was not within his sphere of authority to impose.

When one examines the Snowden incident and the Culper Spy Ring, it becomes evident that the Culper Spy Ring offers a more meaningful historical benchmark for modern intelligence gathering with regard to balancing freedom and civil rights. Washington used the spy ring against an enemy of the state much the same as the NSA has done with its surveillance activities. Unlike Washington, Snowden’s decision was not one of balancing interest but instead a decision to reveal secrets based on his single ethical opinion. This unilateral decision-making neither served the interest of a nation, nor did it take into account the needs of anyone beyond his own self-interest, no matter how well-intended.


George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (2014). George Washington, Spymaster How Washington Established a Spy Network in British Controlled New York. Retrieved from George Washington’s Mount Vernon:

Kilmeade, B., & Yaeger, D. (2013). George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution. City of Westminster, London: Penguin.

Reitman, J. (2013, December 4). Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets. Retrieved from Rolling Stone:

Tzu, S. (1994). Art of War. New York: Basic Books.

Laura Poitras / Praxis Films


Triola Vincent. Sun, Feb 14, 2021. Edward Snowden & The Culper Spy Ring Retrieved from

Need similar articles?

Critical Thinking Or Security Or Technology
Back to: Ten Years of Academic Writing