Steamboat Springs Two conservative speakers participating in a debate about national privacy issues at The Steamboat Institute's annual Freedom Conference gave very different answers when asked whether they thought National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was a traitor or a patriot.
"Edward Snowden is a traitor to the United States of America," former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore told a large audience at The Steamboat Grand.
Before answering, Gilmore held up a newspaper front page with pictures of Snowden and Vladmir Putin under the headline of "Comrades."
Gilmore said Snowden "was given the most confidential trust of the people of the United States," and he betrayed that trust.
He added that the leaks from Snowden has caused this country's enemies to change their behavior.
Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who debated Gilmore on privacy issues, did not label Snowden a patriot, either.
But he did say his leaks have spurred an important dialogue.
"If it wasn't for him, this panel today wouldn't be here," Kirk said. "He really opened a dialogue and a discussion about this agency that for so long has been unknown."
Kirk said Snowden should be judged by a jury of his peers.
The growing power of the NSA weighed heavily on the hourlong debate.
Both speakers spent much of their time talking about how they thought the country should balance privacy and security in future, especially as threats from terrorists and other conflicts with countries loom.
Gilmore and Kirk agreed that the NSA needs to be held more accountable in the wake of reports that its power and capabilities have grown throughout the years.
Both also said oversight has been lacking.
Some critics say the agency's spying powers are going too far.
Kirk said the agency has created a sense of paranoia among Americans.
But Gilmore stressed that with the U.S. still facing serious conflicts from countries like Iran, China and Russia, and threats from non-states like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. needs to maintain its intelligence and eavesdropping advantages.
He said the government needs to continue to be able to "understand what the enemy is doing and what they are thinking."
"The loss of that advantage would be catastrophic to this country and the safety of this country, and that is the danger we face," Gilmore said.
He said it was a "false choice" for Americans to have to choose between either a strong security system that "spies on everybody" or to have total liberty.
"There are ways we can reform our NSA operations to protect the American people," he said.
Kirk called for more oversight of the NSA and said conservatives need to "lead the charge against the abuse of power."
"The NSA is probably the most powerful agency we've ever seen," he said. "We have to ask ourselves one final question: Do you trust the federal government, and do you trust the people running it?"
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