Edward Snowden secured his highest endorsement yet in the US when former vice-president Al Gore described the leaking of top secret intelligence documents as "an important service".
Asked if he regarded Snowden as a traitor or whistle-blower, Gore on Tuesday veered away from the "traitor" label. He refused to go as far as labelling him a whistle-blower but signalled he viewed him as being closer to that category than a traitor, saying: "What he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the US constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed."
Snowden leaked US and British documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post in June last year, starting a worldwide debate on the balance between surveillance and privacy. His revelations have led to proposed changes in legislation in the US and a backlash against government surveillance by major telecoms and internet companies.
But he remains a polarising figure in the US. An NBC poll a fortnight ago showed 24 per cent backing him and 34 per cent disagreeing with his actions, with 40 per cent having no opinion. Among the younger generation there was more support, with 32 per cent backing him and only 20 per cent opposed. Some members of Congress have welcomed the revelations but refuse to go as far as supporting Snowden, who is wanted by the US and lives in exile in Russia.
Gore, interviewed at a technology conference in Nashville, Tennessee, was asked if he viewed him as a whistle-blower or a traitor. "I hear this question all the time. I'm like most people: I don't put him in either one of those categories. But I'll be candid and give you what you want. If you set up a spectrum."
The interviewer interrupted: "How would you define it?"
Gore replied: "I would push it more away from the traitor side. And I will tell you why. He clearly violated the law so you can't say OK, what he did is all right. It's not. But what he revealed in the course of violating important laws included violations of the US constitution that were way more serious than the crimes he committed.
"In the course of violating important law, he also provided an important service. OK. Because we did need to know how far this has gone."
Snowden's supporters will seize on Gore's comments to help make the case that he is a whistle-blower and should be allowed to return to the US as a free man.