Manning’s and Snowden’s Classified Leaks: Why They Are Different

Posted on June 10, 2013


Last week, we opined that PFC Bradley Manning had committed a crime in leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks. This week, Edward Snowden has outed himself as the NSA leaker who leaked a Top Secret court order authorizing the NSA to collect data on all Verizon customers’ phone calls for the next three months, regardless of any suspicion of wrongdoing (or lack thereof). As it turns out, this was just a routine “renewal” of authorization for a collection program that has been going on for years.

Is there any difference between Manning and Snowden, who both improperly leaked classified material? I think so. While Manning pretty indiscriminately leaked hundreds of thousands of classified documents from multiple entities dating back to 1966, Snowden leaked one very deliberately selected document for a deliberate purpose. Both committed a crime, and both are subject to punishment for that crime; but while I am not very forgiving of PFC Manning’s actions or understanding of his motivations, I am much more forgiving, even perhaps admiring, of Mr. Snowden. Why? Because of this oath that I repeated every time I pinned on a new rank in the military; this oath, a version of which is recited by every Senator and Representative as they assume their offices; this oath, a version of which the President recites at his inauguration:

I (state your name) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.” (DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers.)

Notice, it is not a promise to defend the government. It is an oath to defend the Constitution, and the Constitution, dear readers, is in jeopardy when the government thinks it is justifiable to collect the private communications information of all citizens, however noble the intent. Oh, I understand the claims that they are not actually listening to our conversations, that they are only collecting data such as times, durations, and phone numbers of our calls; I hear them when they say they only access the data when they first have other evidence concerning particular individuals; I get it when they say they are looking for patterns that will help them to identify and stop terrorist plots. But this is a good way down a slippery slope, and I don’t buy their disingenuous arguments that, gee, no Americans have complained about this. How the heck are your citizens supposed to complain about something that you have purposely hidden from them?

CNN quotes President Obama:  “You can’t have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience.  We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Again: how are we going to make those choices as a society when we don’t even know that our government, unbeknownst to us, has already made those choices for us… and this choice involved giving up our Fourth Amendment rights?

This is a threat to the concept of America itself. How can we call ourselves “Land of the Free” when law-abiding citizens’ private information is surreptitiously collected by the government? How can we protest against such activities when the fact of it is kept secret from us? And when our basic Constitutional rights are impinged upon in secret, what is the risk that more, and larger, such infringements will be secretly implemented in the near future, using similar justifications?

We have been here before, this place where blind fear leads to undemocratic, police-state tactics. The fear of our Asian-American citizens led us to deprive them of their liberty and property during WWII, even as their sons fought for America. The fear of Communism led our government to conduct abusive investigations and hearings in Congress and to “blacklist” American citizens suspected of sympathizing with the Communists. Now, fear of terrorism – which kills roughly 16 Americans per year, about the same number as Americans who die in furniture-related mishaps – has made us so blind and stupid with panic that we are signing away our privacy and our protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The pendulum swings, and swings back. Democracy is never perfect; the pendulum oscillates according to the pressures of the times, but the important thing is that it is never allowed to swing so far in one direction as to permanently destroy this great experiment we call America.

Snowden’s action was still a crime, and he is still subject to punishment, but sometimes risking the known punishment is a matter of patriotic principles. This revelation will add to the pressures to swing the pendulum back into a more normal position, which is far too long in coming. Even President Obama recognized publicly that the “War on Terror” needs to end now; that should also mean that these draconian, fear-driven “anti-terrorism” measures should end, too.