While fleeing from the law in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden encouraged a return to “the rule of law rather than men.” In spite of his politically incorrect usage of “men” instead of “men and women,” he’s right. Generally speaking, individual citizens shouldn’t be held above the law — least of all a soldier named Pfc. Bradley Manning who stole 720,000 classified documents and handed them over to be be indiscriminately posted for public consumption by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.
Whatever we might think about the motives and repercussions of Bradley Manning’s actions, one thing we know for sure is that he broke the law. He was apprehended, arrested and, as a soldier, he was given a fair court-martial without a jury of his peers per his own request. He was able to hire a defense team and was backed up by public advocacy around the world. From there, he plead guilty to breaking ten laws in the face of having pledged an Oath of Enlistment. And on Tuesday, a military judge found him guilty on an additional ten charges.
Knowing this, I’m not exactly sure why there was such violent garment rending yesterday over the fact that Manning will go to prison per the mandates of the law. He was given due process, he was presumed innocent and he was tried in the plain view of journalists. So, why the angst?
I’m not clear as to how Manning has been able to attain such a small but vocal following of supporters given his recklessness and naivete in leaking so many documents, many of which revealed information damaging to American diplomatic endeavors. As with Snowden, there’s a vindictiveness in Manning’s actions — a destructive blurting of information in order to seemingly exact punishment upon his government and the people from which it’s derived. Had he released fewer documents with a more precise goal in mind and done so through more respectable channels, it’s likely he wouldn’t be facing 136 years in prison. Better yet, he probably wouldn’t have as many critics.
This brings us to the issue of transparency and the so-called “war on whistleblowers.”
It’s bizarre that we’ve reached a place and time in which we have to justify the need for state secrets, but here we are. No matter how entitled some of the more privileged Manning supporters think they might be, secrets must remain secretive. Full stop. It’s not necessarily because you shouldn’t know, it’s chiefly because successful national security and diplomacy depends upon it. Indiscriminate leaks carry the potential for catastrophic repercussions to the United States in the context of a blindingly adversarial world. And I say “adversarial” in every possible sense, including the chess-match of preventing wars as well as the maintenance of solid relationships with both allies and “frenemies.”
Elevating someone like Manning to hero status serves to encourage subsequent would-be “heroes” whose character and judgment is impossible for us to know, and so we should be cautious to blindly encourage more. One of the many reasons such behavior is against the law is obviously to prevent the willy-nilly circulation of documents to anyone who asks nicely. Should we as a society trust just anyone to have the laser-precise judgment and informed, morally-driven discretion to engage in the responsible leaking of secrets? I don’t think so. Doing so is a formula for chaos.
This is why it’s acceptable to responsibly encourage both transparency and benevolent whistleblowers. But it’s inherently dangerous to encourage slash-and-burn leaks and leakers, the likes of which we’ve observed in Manning and, to a lesser extent, Snowden. And when these leakers break the law, it’s critical that they be compelled, even by their supporters, to face the consequences of their actions. First, because, to repeat, America is a nation of laws. And, more specifically, without the barrier of law enforcement, future leakers, acting with public impunity, could prove to be even more reckless and harrowing than Manning.
Furthermore, I’m repulsed by the too-prevalent use of the term “whistleblower” to include everyone who leaks classified documents. It’s inaccurate as well as being hugely disrespectful to legitimate whistleblowers. Not everyone gets to be a hero just because they horked things from the government and then emailed their bounty to Glenn Greenwald. Put another way: just because someone successfully reproduces and makes a baby doesn’t automatically make that person the parent of the year. Whistleblowers who thoughtfully, selflessly, and often quietly expose illegal activity for the benefit of the people should be applauded. Leakers, on the other hand, need to be treated with caution and their character evaluated on an acutely discerning case-by-case basis.
By the way, contrary to what we’ve been told by Greenwald and others, there is no “war on whistleblowers” being pursued by the Obama administration. It’s pure fiction — a Greenwald agitprop campaign. It might surprise Greenwald’s readers to learn that President Obama signed the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act last year. Among other things, it “expands protections for federal workers who blow the whistle on misconduct, fraud and illegality.”
It clarifies the scope of protected disclosures, tightens requirements for non-disclosure agreements, expands penalties for violating protections and adds to the staff of some federal agencies an ombudsman whose job will be to educate agency employees of their rights, a statement said.
Hmm. That’s a peculiar law to sign if your goal is to fight an “unprecedented war on whistleblowers.” Additionally, much of this so-called war involves seven prosecutions of leakers — not legitimate whistleblowers. Seven, including Snowden and Manning. Before Manning, the stiffest punishment has been 30 months and the weakest was probation. Furthermore, Charlie Savage, who’s been covering the Manning trial, reported in the New York Times that the appearance of a spike in leaker prosecutions isn’t due to a concerted “war” by the president or the Justice Department, but is actually the result of…
…several leftover investigations from the Bush administration, a proliferation of e-mail and computer audit trails that increasingly can pinpoint reporters’ sources, bipartisan support in Congress for a tougher approach, and a push by the director of national intelligence in 2009 that sharpened the system for tracking disclosures.
Savage also wrote, “[Eric Holder] has told associates that he has no desire for leak prosecutions to be his legacy.”
Reality is an inconvenient thing when you’re constructing a radical, histrionic agenda that paints Obama as an enemy of the free peoples of the United States. Sorry, Mr. Greenwald, there is no “war on whistleblowers.” There’s only the rule of law.
To that point, Manning and Snowden aren’t considered enemies of the state because Obama wants to institute martial law or to seize unaccountable executive power or to form a new American Stasi. Manning and Snowden violated a stack of laws. Snowden fled the country and has threatened to release documents that could “cause [more] harm to the U.S. government in a single minute than any other person has ever had.” These are actionable trespasses, and they don’t deserve to be pardoned just because a debate was ignited or because Greenwald thinks these men are the victims of an unjust war.