There used to be a word for people like Edward Snowden. They were called sources.
And that's what Snowden was when he turned over to journalists reams of documents about the National Security Agency that revealed its shocking domestic spying programs and more.
But if Snowden ever comes in from the cold, he'll likely be tried under the U.S. Espionage Act, at least while Barack Obama's in the White House.
For having high American ideals and the courage of his convictions, Snowden's been labeled a criminal by the president of the United States.
Nearly five years into his presidency, it remains difficult to understand how Obama has established himself as the worst president in the republic's history for press freedoms. But a stacking up of the facts shows that's just what he is -- Obama's attempted to prosecute more journalists and sources than that of any other commander-in-chief and has established an abysmal record on Freedom of Information Act compliance.
The president has sent a deafening message to the federal bureaucracy -- talk to a reporter, leak documents to a reporter, and you will be hunted down and prosecuted. The chilling effect has been pre-global-warming arctic.
Yet the president -- a Harvard educated lawyer, don't forget -- has to know the duplicity of his positions. He cannot claim to advocate for a smarter government, a more tech-savy government, a better government and attempt to place those who blow whistles about wrongdoing in Leavenworth.
But that's just what he is attempting to do.
Historically, Snowden already stands in journalism lore with the stories sourced by Daniel Ellsberg and Mark Felt, aka "Deep Throat." Ellsburg revealed himself almost immediately after leaking the Pentagon Papers. Felt remained closeted until nearly the end of his life.
But also look how each is historically revered now, not simply by journalists, but in society. Ellsberg revealed the truth about Vietnam. Felt's information was instrumental about learning who Richard Nixon really was.
Essentially, Obama, through his actions, is saying that if he were president in 1971, he would have prosecuted Ellsberg, who was originally charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property, but did not go to trial.
It is also difficult to imagine Obama not trying -- and failing, as Nixon did -- to stop publication of stories based on the Pentagon Papers.
In addition to the truth about the war -- The New York Times reported the papers showed Lyndon Johnson and his minions "systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress" -- Ellsberg gave America what is a bedrock principle of a free press: the landmark Supreme Court decision that there are virtually no circumstances under which the government can stop publication of a story.
"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government," Justice Hugo Black wrote. Did Obama skip law school the day that was taught?
In addition to pursuing Snowden and others, there is one Obama-driven case that could create a devastating ruling against the free press -- the saga of investigative journalist and author James Risen.
The Obama's justice department demands Risen testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking him information about the Bush administration's botched attempts to thwart Iran's nuclear efforts by slipping its scientists bogus blueprints.
Risen, of course, is keeping his mouth shut, even though there's no federal Shield Law to protect him. His right to keep his source secret, he argues rightfully, is inherent in the First Amendment.
When a lower court judge agreed with him, the Justice Department appealed and won a decision that, if left to stand, would be devastating to the rights of reporters covering the federal government.
Risen has pledged to appeal to the Supreme Court, where, sadly, few Hugo Blacks remain. An adverse ruling to Risen and, thus, American freedom, could be the president's lasting legacy.
But Obama remains as unflinching about his positions as he is so fundamentally wrong.
Edward Snowden and whoever sourced Risen to expose deeper levels of truth about our government shouldn't get prison time.
They should get ticker-tape parades.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is also co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, Freedom of Information Committee. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.