As news of Edward Snowden’s whistleblower coming-out interview was getting around the Internet Sunday night, somebody asked on Twitter, “Is this another Bradley Manning?”
National intellegence director James Clapper and future prosecutors may see it differently, but in my mind there are key distinctions between Snowden’s disclosure of the U.S. government’s sweeping data-mining programs to news reporters and Manning’s alleged dump of hundreds of thousands of classified military documents on the Wikileaks site.
Snowden, a 29-year-old computer technician now in self-exile in Hong Kong, had legitimate access to the information he leaked to journalists for The Guardian and The Washington Post. He saw a situation that disturbed him — secret government surveillance of data involving U.S. citizens — and he worked with journalists to inform the public in an accurate manner.
That, to me, is different from the situation involving Manning, an Army private who is accused of scooping up all kinds of classified information, some of which he had legitimate access to and some of which he didn’t, and placing it onto an Internet site without context or discretion.
Call me biased, as a member of the mainstream media, but I believe that information needs context, and the job of trained journalists is to help shape that context.
Snowden, working with reporters and editors, played a key role in telling an important story. He is the guy who informed Americans that their phone and Internet transactions are routinely being scanned for patterns that might indicate terrorist activity.
Manning sprayed secrets for anyone, anywhere, to make of them what they will. Whatever his unhappy fate, Manning, who is standing trial right now in a military court, will be remembered for what he did, not for the information he disclosed. Most people would be hard-pressed right now to recount a single narrative in the Wikileaks dump.
That the military would prosecute a service member who violated his oath and wantonly leaked classifed information is a foregone conclusion.
But Snowden, who comes across as brainy and idealistic, poses a problem for President Barack Obama’s administration and for members of both parties in Congress who have been complicit in the secret surveillance programs. Whatever you think of the data-mining that’s going on, there is no reason to keep it secret. Thanks to Snowden and the news organizations, it is now open, and many Americans are grateful for that. The spectacle of big government cracking down on the whistleblower isn’t a nice thing to contemplate.