If Edward Snowden were a Russian citizen who was born in Russia, became a professional spy and later infiltrated the US, could I still say that he betrayed the USA?

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    The other answers are generally correct, but to simply clarify: to "betray" implies that there was some trust to start with. So in the usual sense of the term, you cannot "betray an enemy" - such a phrase would be peculiar enough to imply the writer sought to make some point about basic trust and honesty or something along those lines. – BrianH Aug 2 '13 at 16:46
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    If that were the scenario, then he would have spied on the US, not betrayed the US. – J.R. Aug 2 '13 at 18:23
  • @J.R.: He got a job with the NSA. The NSA trusted him. Were he a Russian citizen, he would have betrayed that trust. That he always intended to doesn't change anything. – David Schwartz Aug 3 '13 at 2:39
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    @DavidSchwartz - so we can say that he betrayed NSA, but not USA, right? – brilliant Aug 3 '13 at 2:51
  • @brilliant: Only if you were trying to make some subtle political point about how the NSA doesn't represent the true interests of the United States. But normally, that's what it means to betray a country. Getting a job for a country's government, particularly in the military or intelligence areas, and then revealing secrets entrusted to you is probably the most common way you would betray a country. Robert Hanssen, for example, betrayed America in just this way. – David Schwartz Aug 3 '13 at 2:56

Assuming we're talking about definitions of words and not anything about this particular case (as to the best of my knowledge there is no indication that Mr Snowden is a Russian, etc) ...

The short answer is "maybe".

If someone was sent by country A to be a spy in country B, you wouldn't normally say that he "betrayed country B". "Betray" implies violating a trust or expectation of loyalty, and someone from A is not expected to be loyal to B.

But if he came from A, and then became a citizen of B, and gave every indication that his loyalty was now to his adopted nation, then you could say that he betrayed B.

Or if someone came from A and got a job in the government of B, and then used that position to steal secrets to send back to A, you could say that he betrayed B. He was given a position of trust, and then he broke that trust.


Betray means:

  • Expose one's country, a group, or a person to danger by treacherously giving information to an enemy
  • Treacherously reveal secrets or information
  • Be disloyal to
  • Unintentionally reveal; be evidence of

In the first case, I could use the following sentence.

She is a double agent who betrayed some 400 British and French agents to the Germans.

In the second case, I could use a sentence similar to the following.

Many of those employed by diplomats betrayed secrets and sold classified documents

In the third case, I could use this other sentence.

Her friends were shocked when she betrayed them.

The difference between the second case and the other case is that in the second case the direct object for betray is what is revealed; in the first case the direct object is the country, group or person that was exposed to danger; in the third case, the direct object is the people to which the subject was disloyal.


Yes, but only because he obtained a position of trust within the United States working for the NSA. You can only betray someone or something (in this sense) if they extended some trust to you. If a Russian agent did the same thing Snowden did without working for the NSA, it would be incorrect to say he had "betrayed the United States" because no trust had been extended.

  • Hmm. I am a bit confused here. What if somebody has some trust toward me, but I don't even know about it, would it still be an act of me betraying that person if I act not according to his expectations? The other day my brother told me that he trusted one politician in some other country. Today that politician did something really opposite to what my brother expected of him. The politician has no knowledge about my brother's existence. So, is it still okay to say in English that that politician has betrayed my brother?! – brilliant Aug 3 '13 at 3:01
  • @brilliant: Yes, it is. It is pretty typical to describe politicians betraying people in that way, especially because politicians obtain their jobs only because people trust them to be true to their word. – David Schwartz Aug 3 '13 at 3:08
  • (1) I am not talking about people - politicians know about the existence of the people that put trust into him - but about one particular person, my brother. Another example: 3 years ago I got myself a position in school as a teacher. The school had a long history of underpaying its teachers, so many teacher that had been there before me quit after one month of working there. I also quit in one month. Today I found out that my boss had a counselor in that school who would observe each teacher's teaching through monitors in the office (there were video cameras installed – brilliant Aug 3 '13 at 3:24
  • (2) in each classroom). I have never seen that counselor in my life, but today I found out that the counselor once told my boss: "This guy is a good teacher, he likes his job and likes kids. He won't quit so soon, believe me. I trust him." So, did I betray that counselor?! – brilliant Aug 3 '13 at 3:26
  • @brilliant: I wouldn't use the word that way. There was no confidence for you to betray. – David Schwartz Aug 3 '13 at 5:54

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