San Francisco - "I'm neither a traitor nor a hero. I'm an American."
That's how NSA leaker Edward Snowden described himself in an interview with the South China Morning Post this week, as America debated just how to deal with the rogue intelligence operative.
To his supporters - there are millions of them throughout the world - he is a hero, who bravely took on an all-powerful system to make a stand for individual rights.
His opponents see a digital traitor who twisted and betrayed a programme vital to his country's security.
A poll published on Thursday by the Huffington Post found an almost even split over Snowden's decision reveal details of top-secret US government surveillance programmes.
The poll found that 38% of Americans think that Snowden was right to release highly classified information about the country's digital intelligence gathering operations, while 35% denounced the leak. About 28% said they were unsure.
But among people who are closely following the story the numbers skewed even stronger toward Snowden, with 50% saying they supported the computer specialist compared to 34% who opposed him.
The poll diverged sharply from attitudes among the nation's elite political class, where members of Congress displayed a rare unified front in condemning Snowden and extolling the digital tracking programmes he exposed.
It's not too often in the past five years that US President Barack Obama and House majority speaker John Boehner have found themselves on the same side of an issue, but this was one of them.
Strange alliances have also formed in defence of Snowden, with right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck finding himself in the same boat as his left-wing nemesis, documentary film maker Michael Moore.
"Earmarks of a real hero," Beck tweeted, while Moore dubbed Snowden "hero of the year".
On the internet the consensus came close to defining Snowden as a new breed of anti-hero, a man who even more than WikiLeaks informant Army Private First Class Bradley Manning represented a widely admired ideal of the principled lone operative who risks his life and his career to expose the nefarious behaviour of an all-powerful government.
On Twitter, for instance, tweets about Snowden as a hero are more frequent than those referring to him as a traitor by a ratio of 30:1, according to an analysis by Buzzfeed.com.
Meanwhile, an online petition calling on the White House to pardon him has gathered some 70 000 signatures in just three days, about the same number of people who signed a petition nominating Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Both Manning and Snowden appear to have been inspired by the libertarian ethos that runs strong through many pioneers of cyberspace.
Manning insists that he was trying to "spark a domestic debate over the role of the military and our foreign policy in general", while Snowden told The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald that his decision to release secret documents sprang from a conviction that he could not "in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building".
Their motives echo one of the seminal documents of the internet. "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind," wrote John Perry Barlow, the founder of the online advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the 1996 Declaration of the Independence of the Internet. "On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."
Snowden brazenly displayed a sticker of EFF on his laptop while working at the NSA offices.
"I don't see myself as a hero because what I'm doing is self-interested: I don't want to live in a world where there's no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity," Snowden said in his interview with The Guardian.
Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks argued that Snowden was a product of his age, a man who appeared to have had few social or familial ties, and who viewed life through the technological prism of the internet.
His guiding philosophy according to Brooks is "the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organisations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme".