The fallout from the NSA surveillance revelations has dominated the media on both sides of the Atlantic over the past week. I have been reading the blow-by-blow coverage of the events in The Guardian and as each day further illuminates the depth of this invasion of privacy, the story has started to resemble the plot of a fantastical espionage movie. This feeling is only exacerbated by the protagonist in this tale, Edward Snowden, an unassuming former CIA technical operative who leaked data exposing the Anglo-American governmental surveillance of the internet, then fled into hiding in Hong Kong. You can just see Jake Gyllenhaal playing the prettier version of Snowden in soon to be forthcoming hollywoodized biopic. Yet while Snowdon’s story has been getting all the attention, it has over-shadowed the latest chapter in perhaps the most critical of American stories in the 21st Century, a story that could stand as a prequel for Snowden’s own tale of security leaks; the tale of Bradley Manning.
Those who wish to disparage Snowden’s actions point to his decision to flee to Hong Kong as evidence of his cowardice. For them, this is what separates him from a Martin Luther King or a Henry David Thoreau: while they may have advocated breaking that most sacred totem of the borgiouse- the law- at least they stuck around to face the consequences of their actions. In a rare display of bi-partisanship, House Speaker John Boehner echoed the attitude of the Obama administration and brandished Snowden a traitor. But before the likes of Boehner pass judgements on Snowden’s decision to flee, maybe he should look at the ongoing trial of Private Bradley Manning for reasons why Snowden choose to leave America.
Conducting an ad hominem comparison of these young men, we can see that the parallels are obvious and ripe for pseudo psychological analysis. Both were enlisted in the US Army. Neither seems to have had an extremely happy or successful time in the forces. Both men appear to be very sharp, blessed with skills with regards information technology that appear to have been largely self taught as neither graduated from college. Both men put conscience above country, and in taking their actions revealed a personal moral hierarchy that goes against the type of patriotism necessary for governments to function since the modern nation state was established. And also both guys seem to display a lack of concern for self-interest which is what I imagine most disturbs their vehement critics. For bien pensant commentators and politicians, Manning and Snowden’s actions must seem like insanity because they are appear to be driven by only altruistic motives. By releasing the information, Manning and Snowden have made themselves targets for the most powerful government in the world and had nothing to gain from their actions. They simply thought their fellow citizens deserved to know what their government was up to.
The silence regarding Bradley Manning’s case should be an cause for embarrassment for all those who direct public discourse. A young, gay soldier who is being held seemingly indefinitely and without charge for exposing the true nature of the violence committed by the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan should have been a leading point of discussion for any person who values the liberties America claimed were her foundations. Yet as Manning languished in a military cell over the past few years, there was barely a peep to be heard about him in the mainstream press. Now his trial has finally begun, the level of coverage has stayed much the same. The story has been valued as being below the NSA revelations, below the penultimate episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ and way below Kim ‘n’ Kanye’s impending baby (any day now!). If attention had been paid to this trial, the media would be forced to confront the realization that the responsibility that they are supposed to carry – the responsibility of holding a light up to the dark corners of the workings of power and informing everyday citizens of the actions of the state, were left to an isolated young soldier, while they were sipping champagne at the White House Coresspondence Dinner.
In Manning’s eloquent personal statement he explains why he took the action he did. Talking about the Joint Task Force Guantanamo, Manning stated, “The more I became educated on the topic, it seemed that we found ourselves holding an increasing number of individuals indefinitely that we believed or knew to be innocent.”
How many other members of the media or the government had that same dawning realization? Should they be admired for ignoring the moral dilemma that Manning faced up to? Conventional thought appears to be arguing that they should. Because if you answer your conscience like Manning did, then you should get the death penalty, at least according to Congressman Mike Rogers.
The Bradley Manning case should be the most monitored case by the general public since O.J. Beyond the rhetoric of ‘whistleblowers’ or ‘treason’, this isn’t even a case about Bradley Manning, but about the future and what shape the relationship between the citizen and the state will take in it. For the nation states, it is becoming clear that they see that the surplus of information now offered by the internet as an opportunity for them to access any information, now matter how personal, about any person at any time for any reason. However, it can only go one way. If the tables are turned and state privacy is breached, the full weight of the law must be felt by the perpetrator. It’s a paradigm in which having secrets is a privilege of the powerful. Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, Andrew Auernheimer, and Aaron Swartz are some of those who stood against this paradigm. The state will continue to throw the book at them as it claims their revelations destroy the image of the government. Ironically, they don’t seem to realize that it is their treatment of these people that most ruins any lingering notions of America and the West as being the home of democracy and liberty.