Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Tale of Three Leakers

Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years today.  Supporters think he's a principled whistleblower being oppressed.  Detractors say he's a miserable traitor and think he got off light.  Based on the convictions, he's not technically a traitor, but he's certainly not principled either.  This verdict actually makes sense, because Manning went too far.  He deserves the time he'll get, as will Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, if we ever get our hands on him.  There's a way to leak in a principled and responsible way.  It's happened before.

Manning's supporters frequently liken him to Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker of the Pentagon Papers.  Ellsberg has been public in his support for Manning. But Ellsberg's story differs from Manning's in a few key aspects.  The short version of the Daniel Ellsberg story is that he found top secret documents that appeared to show that the Vietnam War was started under false pretenses and that the military no longer believed the war winnable.  Unable to accomplish anything through channels, he attempted to leak it to several senators, and ultimately leaked it to the New York Times.  He was tried for espionage, but cleared.

Ellsberg is generally remembered as a heroic figure.  He took a stand against a war he was convinced was wrong, and did not like the fact that we were still prosecuting the war after we thought it unwinnable.  His goal throughout the process was to stop the war.  Regardless if someone agrees or disagrees, he remained focused on this objective and everything he did was to bring it about.  So at the very least this shows it was a principled fight for him.  He didn't veer off course.

Bradley Manning was also on trial because he leaked documents.  Documents that were merely secret, not top secret like the Pentagon Papers.  He was also disillusioned with lengthy wars we had become involved in.  Initially, he only leaked video that showed American airstrikes that appeared to be at the very least careless, and possibly criminal.  The video shows an American gunship firing on a group of men in a war zone.  The men are not running or doing anything overtly aggressive, but this is not necessarily relevant in a war.  In a war zone, a soldier does not have to wait for an identified enemy to be an immediate threat to open fire.  The only problem is, at least some of the men weren't enemies.

Two of the men were reporters of Al Jazheera.  They were carrying cameras that the pilots mistakenly identified as rocket launchers.  The gunship firing on the men was a mistake.  This is a tragedy, but also the sort of mistake that happens in the fog of war.  However, the gunship also fired on a minivan that came up to assist the wounded.  There was no clear evidence that the occupants were enemies.  Later, the gunship fires on a building because the pilots claimed they saw enemies enter.  This was a civilian building, and God only knows who else was in there.  This video alone was a worthwhile leak.  If Manning had stopped there, he'd probably be okay.

But he didn't.  He later released a critical installation list, some information involving a flap in Iceland, and tons of diplomatic cables.  Most of this information had nothing to do with Iraq or Afghanistan.  The release of these documents could not be expected to affect these wars.  Unlike Ellsberg, who released documents with the sole intent of ending a war, Manning just dumped everything he had to Wikileaks.  This suggests that his intent was not really to end the wars (because these documents were unrelated), but merely to harm and embarrass the United States.  That's why he's been sentenced to 35 years.

This explains why NSA leaker Edward Snowden went from Superhero Leaker to International Man of Douchebaggery within a fairly short span of time.  He also is no Daniel Ellsberg.  When he first leaked, plenty of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians hailed him as a hero.  Now, they sort of...don't.

The information he initially leaked seemed to be something that showed the government clearly violating the fourth amendment.  I can think of few more principled stands than standing up for the Constitution.  That's how people from all over the political spectrum were able to support him.  He could have been the next Daniel Ellsberg.  But instead, he'll just be the next Bradley Manning.

Not long after his initial leak, he decided to leak the fact that the US and UK spied on a G20 (or G8 or G-whatever) meeting.  Then he decided to leak that we were hacking the Chinese.  The fact that we spy on other countries is not a revelation.  They do it to us too.  Spying may be an inherently shady business, but in a world with dangerous and unpredictable countries and shifting loyalties, it's necessary for our survival.  Revealing specifics of our spying damages our ability to do so.  This is what moved Snowden into Manning territory.  None of this is related to the initial fourth amendment concerns.  This can only hurt the United States.  He either intended this or didn't care, both of which are enough to convict someone in a court of law.

Both Manning and Snowden seem to think that revealing everything makes the world a better place.  This mindset is common amongst many young activists, particularly the Anonymous/Occupy types.  They seem to believe that if everyone knows everything, the world will be a better place.  This is naive utopianism. These absurdist and foolhardy ideas demonstrate a severe lack of understanding about how the world works; a lack of understanding that is common in these circles.  

For example, King of Leaky Net Nerds, Darling of Nutball Radicals, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange actually claimed he saw no irony that Snowden was hob-nobbing with China and Russia.  Two countries who are not known for their respect of personal privacy, free speech, and so forth.  This sort of willful ignorance is common among those who occupy the hackivist bubble.

Maybe this only happened because Manning and Snowden are young and foolish.  Maybe they got bamboozled by members of the press who wanted a scoop.  An older person might be sophisticated enough to know that intelligence gathering and operating in secret are frequently necessary, because many world governments do not lead free countries and are not trustworthy.  But being a naive kid doesn't grant absolution.  Stupidity is not an excuse.

Daniel Ellsberg walks free.  Manning will go to jail.  And Snowden will too, if we ever catch him.  A real leaker stays focused on principle.  Manning and Snowden revealed everything they knew, even things that were unrelated to their supposed goals of ending war or protecting the constitution.  Had they stopped with their initial leaks, they'd probably go free, and maybe be remembered as heroes.  Now they'll just be remembered as small, ignoble men who could have acted on principle, but just acted to hurt the country they swore to protect.

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