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Manning and Snowden: Traitors or whistleblowers?

Manning and Snowden: Traitors or whistleblowers?
Published 15 Aug 2013   Follow @RodgerShanahan

I find this debate nonsensical. In one case a uniformed soldier downloaded a raft of classified information and gave it to a non-government organisation. The Guardian refers to Manning as a whistleblower, and Crikey does likewise, even calling him a hero. Paul McGeogh went so far as to describe Manning as a 'concerned citizen'. As proof that he has done nothing wrong, Crikey cites the fact that the US government could not prove that anybody had been killed or injured as a consequence of his actions.

But the lack of a body count attributable to Manning's actions is a result of good luck rather than good management. Given that he stole 700,000 documents, he had no idea what was contained in even a tiny percentage of them. What if other less physical but still real consequences resulted from the handing over of such information? For instance, what if trade negotiations soured, which led to the loss of jobs because sensitive cables were leaked?

Such was the scale of Manning's perfidy that he never attempted to sift through the information, and neither did WikiLeaks. [fold]

In the other case, NSA contractor Edward Snowden stole and passed to a journalist 15-20,000 classified documents before fleeing to Russia via Hong Kong (China), apparently with four laptops 'that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government's most highly-classified secrets', according to the Guardian. Whether these countries have already accessed the information on these laptops is being debated, but is less relevant than what Snowden has already done.

The notion of a whistleblower or leaker normally indicates three things: some sort of nobility of intent, a detailed understanding of the information that is being passed, and the likely consequences of passing it. In other words, the information leaked is limited in scope, and the ultimate recipient of the information and the purpose for giving it is known. The intent and the actions should align.

The scattergun approach of both Manning and Snowden says nothing about the selectivity of information they wished to reveal and everything about the fact that they didn't care what they revealed, to whom they revealed it or the consequences to people who may be mentioned in those documents. This is not an issue journalists appear comfortable raising, likely because it goes against the journalistic narrative of the two as contemporary folk heroes.

But are their actions any different in motivation to those of Jonathan Pollard, serving life in prison since the 1980s for leaking reams of classified documents to Israel, believing that he was simply helping a US ally? At least Pollard knew what he was handing over; given the volume of what Manning and Snowden passed on, they obviously didn't care. They wanted to inflict maximum damage on the country for which they worked by revealing its classified material to as many people as possible.

If that's not espionage, I don't know what is. Perhaps it's not your classic Cold-War espionage, but it is espionage nevertheless.

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