By Dan Merica and Elise Labott
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.
Was Edward Snowden a hero or a traitor?
That is the question the media, the public and elected officials have debated ever since Snowden released classified information about the United States' efforts to monitor its own citizens.
But on Thursday, the debate got more interesting when representatives from the National Security Agency - the organization Snowden leaked information about - the Pentagon and the American Civil Liberties Union informally debated the issue in public.
"I think he did this country a service," Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU said regarding Snowden. "I have not said that publicly until this point. I think he did this country a service by starting a debate that was anemic, that was left to government officials where people did not understand fully what was happening."
Romero's animated admission came at a Thursday panel at the Aspen Security Forum.
While the ACLU leader was making his case for Snowden, Jane Harman, a former congresswoman who initially approved the program that Snowden leaked, was seen shaking her head.
In response to Romero, Jeh Charles Johnson, the former general counsel for the Department of Defense, said what Snowden did sent "a bad message."
"I think it is a bad message for us to send to people who decide to take the law into their own hands that they are doing a public service," Johnson said.
Johnson argued that the courts are where debate over national surveillance programs belongs. In response, Romero said Snowden is the reason the ACLU can now get in front of a court to argue the necessity of certain aspects of government surveillance.
"I think our country is better as a result of the revelations of Mr. Snowden," Romero said, concluding his argument.
"That is anarchy," Johnson responded.
Raj De, NSA general counsel, said he believes the NSA and the intelligence community should be as transparent as possible, but with the caveat that transparency is "consistent with our need to protect national security."
Regarding the phone metadata storage program, he said that is "strictly controlled ... to query the data, one has to have a reasonable, articuable suspicion that a particular selector - which is a phone number - has a tie to a specific terrorist group that is identified in a court order."
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, leaked classified NSA documents to the media, sparking worldwide controversy over U.S. surveillance programs.
Since leaking the information, Snowden has been a man without a country. He has received asylum offers from Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, but remains stuck in Moscow's international airport because the United States has revoked his travel documents.
During the debate, Harman interjected to play the role of mediator, skating the line between the two opposing sides. The former congresswoman did, however, argue for Snowden to return to the United States.
"That this guy needs to seek public asylum from other countries because he would be persecuted here is totally nonsense," Harman said. "A lot of Americans support what he did, he should come back and face a fair trial. He's been charged but he hasn't been convicted."
Harman acknowledged the Snowden affair has sparked a badly-needed national debate about the country's clandestine data-collection programs. But she said that did not justify Snowden's leaking of information that could compromise sources and methods.
In June, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Virginia.
- CNN's Carol Cratty contributed to this report.