Chris Hedges, writing in TruthDig, has raised an issue that will be familiar to my regular readers:
It is argued that Snowden, in exposing the National Security Agency’s global spying operation, judiciously and carefully leaked his information through the media, whereas WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning and Hammond provided troves of raw material to the public with no editing and little redaction and assessment. Thus, Snowden is somehow legitimate while WikiLeaks, Assange, Manning and Hammond are not.
Hedges too charitably calls this argument ‘misguided’ and wrings his hands accordingly, correctly noting that “it lends credibility to the relentless attacks by the government” against whistleblowers who don’t meet the Snowden standard. But Hedges is timid about who exactly injected this extremely toxic Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower notion into the discourse in the first place. ‘It is argued…’ he writes. But by whom Chris, by whom? He doesn’t say, even though the record could not be more clear. Indeed, Hedges seems to deliberately muddy the waters of responsibility when he quotes an equally vague Michael Ratner, a lawyer for Wikileaks, who says:
It sounds to me like the so-called Fourth Estate protecting its jobs and ‘legitimacy.’
But Hedges’ misdirection doesn’t end there. By introducing hacker Jeremy Hammond into the discussion, he also misleads on the extent to which Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower aims at mischaracterizing Chelsea Manning and Cablegate. Having been injected into the discourse, it now serves usefully against Hammond, but that is certainly not how it started.
Hedges’ half-baked handwringing has garnered a fair bit of attention, which is a good thing. But since it is half-baked and since I may be the world’s foremost expert on The Snowden Spectacle’s Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower motif, I feel duty-bound to return to the car wreck I swore off in my last post and trace the provenance of this meme for Hedges’ readers and anyone who’s not up to speed.
Before tracing the history, I should first point out that Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower is predicated entirely on lies. The first lie is that Snowden reviewed every NSA document in his cache. We now know that the trove is far too big for him to have done that within the time he is said to have done it. The second lie, mostly promoted by implication, is that Manning was indiscriminate in her selection of documents. The third lie, also promoted by implication, is that Wikileaks dumped Manning’s trove onto the internet without review or redaction. I have covered these matters in detail here and here. It is remarkable that the baldly false and easily refuted assertions of Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower have passed for six months almost entirely without scrutiny.
It’s also important to point out that Manning’s trial — in the words of Leak Keepers Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewan MacAskill — “coincidentally began the week Snowden’s leaks began to make news.” But by what coincidence, exactly? We know why Manning’s trial had to begin on June 3, a date which was known months before. Less obvious is why the NSA stories had to begin the same week and with a prolificacy that would later prove highly uncharacteristic.
This coincidence merits scrutiny, if only because venerable media watchdog Project Censored chose Manning’s trial as the most censored story of 2013. Certainly media abuse of Manning didn’t begin with the onset of the Snowden stories, but surely the NSA deluge the week her trial began was a devastating blow. This Buzzfeed article credits the timing of the first NSA story to Greenwald, who, by his own account, strong-armed his editors, because he was “eager to have the world learn about this spying as soon as possible.” But this urgency seems an odd alibi for this ‘coincidence’, given that six months on, the world is only privy to 1% of the Snowden documents.
Considering that the timing of the NSA stories was likely squashing the last chance that Manning’s humanity might intrude on the public, one might have hoped that Snowden and his elected interpreters would at least vocally and unequivocally ally themselves with her. But that’s not what they did. Two days after strong-arming his editors into publishing his first NSA story, Greenwald administered the first injection of Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower (hereafter GW/BW) into the chatter, though without naming names, via a June 8 Buzzfeed post:
“We’re not engaged in a mindless, indiscriminate document dump, and our source didn’t want us to be,” said Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer, in an email to BuzzFeed Saturday. “We’re engaged in the standard journalistic assessment of whether the public value to publication outweighs any harms.”
The next day, Barton Gellman, Snowden’s contact at the Washington Post, wrote this:
Snowden said he did not intend to release a pile of unedited documents upon the world. “I don’t desire to enable the Bradley Manning argument that these were released recklessly and unreviewed,” he said.
This is quite the deft smear: Snowden vaguely suggests Manning has been aspersed in bad faith, while accepting the aspersions at face value and giving them new life.
The same day that Gellman published his article, The Guardian published a story by Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras that contained this:
…[Snowden] admires both [Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel] Ellsberg and Manning, but argues that there is one important distinction between himself and the army private.
“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest… There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.”
To the increasing alarm and bewilderment of Manning supporters, Greenwald — who was tirelessly making himself the avatar of the Snowden Leaks — promoted GW/BW more vigorously than anyone, each time placing particular emphasis on the importance of journalists to the whistleblowing enterprise. From a June 10 MSNBC appearance:
if you ask [Snowden] what the difference is [between Manning and himself], he will say that he spent months meticulously studying every document. When he handed us those documents they were all in very detailed files by topic. He had read over every single one and used his expertise to make judgments about what he thought should be public–and then didn’t just upload them to the internet–he gave them to journalists who he knew, and wanted to go through them each one by one and make journalistic judgments about what should be public and what wasn’t, so that harm wouldn’t come gratuitously, but that the public would be informed, and that he was very careful and meticulous about doing that
In addition to the quaint notion that each of 50,000+ documents can be ‘meticulously studied’ in ‘months’, these comments are notable for the exceptionally thick layer of self-promotion. The clear message is that Snowden is better than Manning — that is, unlikely to bring “harm” “gratuitously” — because, in addition to reading all his documents, he chose Greenwald and Co specifically for their fine “journalistic judgments.”
Bear in mind that while this campaign continued to some degree in the ensuing months, everything I quoted above came out between June 8 and June 10. Obviously a messaging strategy had been decided upon and pursued from the start with a great deal of discipline. Clearly we can’t blame Ratner’s too general ‘Fourth Estate’ for this, though I think he has pegged the motive exactly.
Unsurprisingly, members of the mainstream media instantly saw a cudgel to use against Manning, and how convenient for their purposes that the start of her trial and Snowden’s arrival so elegantly coincided. Chris Hayes, Radley Balko and Ari Melber were among the journalists who promoted GW/BW on Twitter. Within days, articles appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, Talking Points Memo and elsewhere expounding on the same theme, all taking Snowden’s unverified self-assessment as established fact. From The New York Times, June 10:
[Snowden] was also not nearly as reckless as Bradley Manning, the soldier on trial on charges with giving classified materials to WikiLeaks, who seemed not to know or care what secret documents he was exposing.
That Greenwald and Snowden mixed their smears with professed admiration for Manning made it easy for their more credulous advocates to blame the mainstream entirely for this too predictable result. Even after the beatdown got underway, Greenwald had clearance from his adoring fans to sing the same song, though with Manning now established as meticulous Snowden’s reckless antithesis, he mentioned her less by name; instead he would return to the phantom indiscriminate dump of that first Buzzfeed mention, juxtaposed against the wise, leak-tempering journalists to whom Snowden had so prudently entrusted his trove. From a July 31 CNN appearance:
If you have access to classified information, you could just spew it out all into the ether … [Snowden] could have uploaded it onto the internet en masse…he could have given it to Wikileaks and asked them to just publish it all. He did none of that. He came to established media organizations and said ‘please be extremely careful.'”
In September, WaPo Leak Keeper Barton Gellman said something strikingly similar in an NPR interview, citing Manning by name:
Let’s consider what [Snowden] could have done. If Chelsea Manning was able to exfiltrate and send to Wikileaks and publish, in whole, half a million US Government documents, Edward Snowden who is far far more capable, had far greater access…he could have sent them to Wikileaks…That’s not what he wanted to do.
It is a tribute to both GW/BW’s sticking power and its perniciousness, that servile WaPo hack Richard Cohen parroted these talking points three months after Greenwald had introduced them on CNN:
[Snowden] has been careful with his info, doling it out to responsible news organizations — The Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, etc. — and not tossing it up in the air, WikiLeaks style…
Shortly after Cohen had declared his new-found love for Snowden, the whistleblower himself returned to GW/BW with explicit reference to Manning — at least as paraphrased by fellow NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake — in a Washington Post piece published on October 25:
“[Snowden] made it quite clear that he was not going to compromise legitimate national intelligence and national security operations,” said Thomas Drake, a former NSA executive.
Indeed, Drake said, Snowden made clear in their conversation that he had learned the lessons of prior disclosures, including those by an Army private who passed hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables to the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which posted them in bulk online. “It’s telling,” Drake said, “that he did not give anything to WikiLeaks.”
Note that Manning has almost no existence here beyond Snowden/Drake’s familiar, power-serving mischaracterization. The Post even omits her name, along with any mention of her 35-year sentence, handed down in August.
Finally, Janet Reitman, in her December 4 Rolling Stone Greenwald-Snowden hagiography, mashes up both of Snowden’s above-cited June 9 Manning quotes to explain why he didn’t go to Wikileaks. She then quotes Greenwald who, with his patented yappy hyperbole, extols yet again Snowden’s superhuman ability to un-Manningly download, read, and meticulously file tens of thousands of documents in mere months:
“…every last motherfucking document that he gave us was incredibly elegant and beautifully organized.” Greenwald had no doubt that the leaker had read every page; not a single one was misfiled. “It’s 1,000 percent clear that he read and very carefully processed every document that he gave us by virtue of his incredibly anal, ridiculously elaborate electronic filing system that these USB sticks contained.” (h/t Jay23)
‘Incredibly elegant and beautifully organized…1000 percent clear…ridiculously elaborate…’ Greenwald’s vulgar hucksterism is firing on all cylinders here but Reitman — true to the strict ethical code of resurgent journalism — doesn’t do the simple math that quickly reveals how flagrantly dishonest and stupid this legend truly is. So GW/BW finishes the year emanating from the same source with whom it began, unexamined as ever.
Thus ends the history of GW/BW to date. As I have written elsewhere, the Snowden Spectacle is unique as dissidence in the degree to which its stars repudiate dissent and accede to, and even promote, state and corporate power. Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower embodies this more dramatically than any other aspect, being nothing less than the mendacious, calculated erasure of Manning except as a bad example, in a power-appeasing bid for legitimacy and status. It is, as a friend noted recently, the Leak Keepers’ original sin.
For more details, read these related posts, listed in the order they were posted: