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By Jerome Corsi and Garth Kant

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Is the former NSA contractor who leaked classified documents exposing U.S. surveillance on American citizens along with highly sensitive information crucial to the nation’s security a “hero” or a “cowardly traitor”?

A panel at the CPAC annual conference of conservatives Friday held that debate about Edward Snowden, featuring Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer who has worked for the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore.

Washington Times Editor John Solomon was the moderator.

Fein called Snowden a “hero in the tradition of Thomas Paine.”

“The NSA intended to keep these programs secret forever,” he said, noting Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s denials that the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans.

He argued Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., could not have filed a suit without Snowden’s revelations.

Otherwise, Fein said, “we only had speculation the NSA was listening, not proof.”

Snowden did what all the members of Congress were unwilling to do, Fein contended, “exposing to the American people the NSA abuse of its power.”

“If it wasn’t for Edward Snowden, we would not be having today this debate over the meaning of the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Gilmore acknowledged that the “preservation of our freedom is the entire game in the post-9/11 world.”

But he said Snowden is “a traitor and a coward” who “betrayed the public trust.”

His assessment drew boos from the crowd.

“When the time came for him to flee, as a coward would, he went to Hong Kong where he exposed the information to the press, if not to the communist Chinese,” Gilmore said.

“Then he went to Russia, where he shared the information with a thug – Putin.”

The former governor said Snowden should be charged with treason along with the charges that have been brought under espionage laws.

The Times editor, Solomon, said “every single person in this room should be concerned the government is reading our emails and listening into our telephone conversations.”

Referencing the IRS discrimination against conservatives, Solomon raised the question of whether the NSA might not just be targeting foreign enemies and terrorists, but also political enemies.

Gilmore emphasized the importance of maintaining surveillance of foreign enemies and of independent terrorist groups and insisted the solution is improved oversight by Congress.

Fein said he believes Paul’s suit will be successful, and the Supreme Court will find it unconstitutional for the NSA “to collect forever all information on every telephone and conversation conducted by every American, without any suspicion of wrongdoing.”

He said Gilmore does not understand that the greatest defense asset the nation has is the loyalty of its citizens.

“When the government believes all Americans are traitors, the government will lose the loyalty of the citizens,” he said.

Gilmore said it’s “nonsense demagoguery to suspect the NSA is collecting data on everyone.”

Solomon said “all the NSA has to do is get the records of all phone calls made from CPAC and the NSA has their assignment log for the next year.”

“If the Obama administration can have the IRS target conservatives, why not also have the NSA target conservatives?” he asked.

Earlier Friday at CPAC, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in a rousing, animated speech, declared it’s “time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.”

Later, Rand Paul drew the conference’s most enthusiastic response to a presidential candidate, declaring, “I will not retreat an inch, and I will be heard.”

Anti-Obama filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza also unveiled a new trailer for his upcoming film, and in a panel, a leading attorney representing tea party groups disclosed that IRS official Lois Lerner was interviewed by the Department of Justice

Thursday, after Sen. Ted Cruz’s call to dismantle Barack Obama’s agenda, including a complete repeal of Obamacare, CPAC speakers touched on similar themes, envisioning 2014 as a prime opportunity to seize on Democrat failures and articulate an alternative vision for the country.

Cruz was followed by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s call to fight Obamacare with “everything we’ve got,” Rep. Paul Ryan’s belief that the GOP is primed for victory and the Democrats “will overreach,” Sen. Tim Scott’s call for “responsibility,” Sen. Marco Rubio’s conviction that the world is on the verge of a “new American century,” Sen. Mike Lee’s exhortation to conservatives to”get to work,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s call to mirror his state’s performance-based evaluations of teachers and Donald Trump’s urging to “make America great again.”

Meanwhile, Cruz told WND after his speech that social issues should not be taken off the table in the 2014, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton called Obama the nation’s “biggest security threat” and Chris Christie showed that despite major political setbacks in recent months, his star power has not dimmed.

WND’s coverage of CPAC:

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