Note: This is the first piece I wrote regarding what became a recurring motif in the Snowden Spectacle, which I call Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower. There are links to other posts about the same topic listed in the topmost update below. I encourage you to read them, particularly this one, which summarizes how this motif has entered the discourse on the leaks again and again.
I wrote this before Chelsea Manning disclosed that she is a trans woman. I realize that seeing her identified as something else is objectionable for some — I don’t like it myself — but as this piece refers to a very specific point in time, and was written then, I am uncomfortable with making changes that would confuse the history. I have therefore retained the use of Manning’s family-given name.
I haven’t digested The Guardian’s explosive NSA stories well enough to do any full-fledged posting about them. However, I feel duty-bound to at least address problematic statements that the self-avowed source of the leaks, Edward Snowden, recently made about Bradley Manning.
In the fascinating Guardian article in which Snowden explains himself, we’re told that “he 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.
Of course, I like this Snowden guy, and I am not going to assume that the context in which this quote was placed is his doing and not The Guardian’s. But, whatever the case, the passage reads like a borderline smear, essentially parroting the conventional wisdom that Manning was reckless, even going so far as to imply that Manning’s purpose went beyond revealing a corrupt system to deliberately bringing harm on its agents. Unsurprisingly this has been picked up by many of the usual suspects as one more cudgel with which to beat Manning, whose trial only just started, even though he has been in prison for three years.
As ever, MSNBC is a useful indicator of how the hack wind is blowing. Here’s the ever-reliable Chris Hayes:
Here’s SOPA lobbyist, corporate errand boy and co-host of The Voice, Ari Melber:
MSNBC’s lofty clowns can’t have all the smeary fun, so here’s HuffPost libertarian and ex- torture enthusiast, Radley Balko, concurring with Snowden on proper whistleblower protocol:
[Snowden makes] clear that he did not leak information that would harm individuals or do what he deems real harm to the United States as opposed to revealing the existence and full scope of the NSA’s and US Intelligence Community’s surveillance apparatus. As some of you know, I’ve never been very sympathetic to Manning, thinking him mainly a naif who revealed US government secrets in such a wildly indiscriminate manner as to lose almost any conceivable justification for his acts.
Now I’m not going to let my own permissive views on whistleblower obligations intrude except to say that all of this emphasis on Manning’s recklessness would be indefensibly misplaced even if Snowden’s characterization of Manning’s leaks was factually true. But it’s not, at least not by Manning’s detailed account recently given at trial.
Before considering Manning’s methods, you must first consider the profound differences between him and Snowden in terms of what they leaked and why. Snowden wants to shed light on the extent to which a single agency is developing the means to keep the entire world under surveillance. This is a goal that, unless I’m missing something, does not require a lot of data. It mostly requires his eyewitness account as someone who has worked for the NSA for four years as a contractor, supplemented with what must be a fairly small number of top secret supporting documents.
Manning, on the other hand, was blowing the whistle on empire, particularly with Cablegate, the huge trove of State Department cables he released to Wikileaks in November of 2010, and the source of most of the criticism of his methods. In one of his chats with Adrian Lamo, the man who ratted him out to the government, Manning described the trove like this:
260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective…
…theres so much… it affects everybody on earth… everywhere there’s a US post… there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed… Iceland, the Vatican, Spain, Brazil, Madascar, if its a country, and its recognized by the US as a country, its got dirt on it .[Source: Wired]
Clearly Manning felt, correctly, that the whole trove was the story. As a whistleblower, he had the choice of selecting a handful of scandals and thereby telling only an arbitrary fraction of the story (with a commensurately smaller impact), or releasing the whole trove unedited so that journalists and others could crowd-source the big picture. In light of the trove’s size, telling the whole inside story of American imperialism was just not compatible with the kind of meticulousness with which Snowden is being credited. Manning’s documents also had a far lower secrecy classification than Snowden’s; most were not classified at all. In other words, it’s simply not fair or substantive to compare Manning to Snowden in this regard.
Nevertheless, comparisons are being made and, despite the particular challenges of the project Manning undertook, he still compares well. Listed below are all the items provided by Manning that Wikileaks published, along with remarks about their sensitivity. Where warranted, I have quoted Manning’s trial statements regarding his thinking at the time about the impact of each leak:
1. Reykjavik13, a diplomatic cable suggesting that Iceland had sought the United States help in resolving a dispute with the United Kingdom over the UK’s use of anti-terrorism legislation to secure payment by Iceland of the guarantees for UK depositors. Since this is a matter that involved neither US intelligence nor military, Manning obviously had no reason to believe it put anyone at risk.
2. “Collateral Murder “, the military’s gunsight footage from a Baghdad air strike on a group of eleven mostly unarmed people, including two Reuters journalists whose cameras were allegedly mistaken for weapons. Eight people were killed, rescuers were fired upon and children were injured in the attack. There is no national security argument that can be credibly made against the leaking of a video that documents war crimes, particularly one documenting an incident that happened three years before Manning leaked it and which had already been covered in several news accounts.
3. Afghan War Logs/Iraq War Logs, a collection of SigActs, records created by US Military regarding Significant Activities, including civilian deaths. Here is what Manning said in his court statement about their sensitivity:
In my perspective the information contained within a single SigAct or group of SigActs is not very sensitive. The events encapsulated within most SigActs involve either enemy engagements or causalities. Most of this information is publicly reported by the public affairs office or PAO, embedded media pools, or host nation (HN) media.
Although SigAct reporting is sensitive at the time of their creation, their sensitivity normally dissipates within 48 to 72 hours as the information is either publicly released or the unit involved is no longer in the area and not in danger.
4. “Cablegate” leak of 251,287 State Department cables, written by 271 American embassies and consulates in 180 countries, dated December 1966 to February 2010. Manning’s remarks:
I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for a more open diplomacy. Given all of the Department of State information that I read, the fact that most of the cables were unclassified, and that all the cables have a SIPDIS caption [denotes a cable is appropriate for widely sharing within an interagency audience], I believe that the public release of these cables would not damage the United States.
5. Guantanamo Bay Files, a collection of Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs), memos giving basic and background information about a specific detainee held at some point by Joint Task Force Guantanamo. Manning’s trial statement indicates, once again, that he carefully considered intelligence and national security risk:
Reading through the Detainee Assessment Briefs, I noticed that they were not analytical products, instead they contained summaries of tear line versions of interim intelligence reports that were old or unclassified. None of the DABs contained the names of sources or quotes from tactical interrogation reports or TIR’s. Since the DABs were being sent to the US SOUTHCOM commander, I assessed that they were intended to provide a very general background information on each of the detainees and not a detailed assessment.
In addition to the manner in which the DAB’s were written, I recognized that they were at least several years old, and discussed detainees that were already released from Joint Task Force Guantanamo. Based on this, I determined that the DABs were not very important from either an intelligence or a national security standpoint.
Any discussion of the alleged recklessness of Manning’s leaks must also include the reminder that prior to the publication of the State Department cables, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange sent a letter to the U.S. Department of State, inviting them to “privately nominate any specific instances (record numbers or names) where it considers the publication of information would put individual persons at significant risk of harm that has not already been addressed”. Harold Koh, the State Department’s Legal Adviser, rejected the proposal, stating: “We will not engage in a negotiation regarding the further release or dissemination of illegally obtained U.S. Government classified materials”. Despite the State Department’s apparent lack of urgency, Wikileaks redacted the names of sources and others in potentially vulnerable positions before publishing. Unredacted cables were only published after a security breach by a Guardian writer necessitated it. (Source: Wikipedia).
Similarly, Wikileaks offered to allow the Department of Defense to review the War Logs for potentially risky material, but this offer too was declined. (Source: Salon).
Considering the nature of the leaks themselves, the care with which Manning considered the military and intelligence risk of each document set, and the way both the US State Department and Department of Defense declined to review the leaks and thereby vindicated Manning’s risk assessment, it should come as no surprise that not a single injury to, or death of, U.S. military or intelligence personel can be attributed to his extraordinary whistleblowing.
In other words, Manning’s alleged recklessness is pure legend, a lie told again and again to minimize the real significance of his disclosures, to foster fairy tales about his emotional instability, to justify both the hideous treatment he has received at the hands of the U.S. Military and the disgusting extent to which he has been smeared and trivialized by the few reporters and pundits who even bother with his extremely consequential case.
It is unfortunate that the indoctrination to which we have all been subject with respect to Manning has apparently infected Snowden too, a remarkable whistleblower in his own right. One hopes Glenn Greenwald, who has been Manning’s most vocal high-profile advocate and who is now instrumental in making Snowden’s leaks public, will give him an opportunity to possibly reconsider or clarify his position.
Five months on, we now know that Snowden’s trove was far too big for him to have meticulously gone over every document, even if he’d spent every day of his working life since 2009 going over them. So this was all a lie, told by Snowden out of the gate — just as Manning had gone to trial — and then recited again and again in one form or another by Greenwald. For more details on this, see this post, ‘Good Whistleblower/Bad Whistleblower‘, ‘Edward Snowden’s Incredible Mutating Document Trove‘ and this, Another Snowden News Story, Another Lesson in Proper Whistleblowing.
UPDATE 2 (link)
So the meticulous Snowden vs reckless Manning narrative continues to proliferate. It is amazing how much members of the media establishment want to talk about Manning now, whom they have mostly ignored since his arrest in 2010. It’s weird and sad that their work has been made so much easier for them with disparaging talking points the Guardian helpfully furnished when it introduced Snowden to the world. It’s hard to say how much the chatterers would have done this anyway, but it’s very clear from the language they’re using, and their well-known penchant for mimesis that the Guardian has done no favors for Manning, his supporters, and the larger discourse on whistleblowing.
Here are three recent examples, which I will link to without quoting.
Is Edward Snowden the Anti-Manning? – The New Republic
Surveillance: Snowden Doesn’t Rise To Traitor – The New York Times
The Snowden Prism – Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo
Perhaps more troublingly, Glenn Greenwald, Snowden’s primary contact at the Guardian and one-time ardent Manning defender was on this bandwagon during at least one TV appearance, MSNBC’s Morning Joe. This is sadly fitting, I suppose, since he coauthored the article that first injected this stuff into the discussion. I have run the video of this appearance by about ten people and all have had the same general reaction I did: Wow, Greenwald is really at the top of his game here. It’s really a shame about the Manning bit near the end.
Here’s the text from his Manning remarks :
Thomas Roberts: What makes Bradley Manning any different from Edward Snowden . . . because Manning is widely considered to be a traitor and not a whistleblower?
Greenwald: Well I consider him a whistleblower and a hero and lots of other people do around the world as well…But if you ask [Snowden] what the difference is, 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.
If you’ve ever been an activist who has worked with lawyers, you know that they get very focused on a case at hand and don’t really worry much about the larger ramifications. But the problem with this sometimes is that they make a bad tactical call and feed poison into the system without any commensurate gain. Assuming this battle can even be won with just the right argument, I honestly don’t understand why, in a discussion that is already too focused on personalities, anyone thinks flattering comparisons of Snowden to Manning are more compelling than simply insisting on the unconstitutionality of what the NSA is doing and on Snowden’s right to expose it as illegal activity. I am also at pains to understand why Snowden’s meticulousness in selecting Top Secret documents can’t be established without unkind comparisons to a whistleblower who has been languishing in jail for the past three years.
Perhaps Greenwald can explain, but he’s not talking, even though he should be well aware that a lot of people who support both Manning and Snowden are not happy about this. The cat’s out of the bag, and it can’t be put back in, but perhaps it can be made a little more quiet. Greenwald and the Guardian made a mistake here and they should walk it back. At the very least they should stop fostering a degraded, dishonest line of discussion.
Here’s the full video. Section about Manning begins near 15:40.
In the first draft of this post, I referred to Radley Balko as a “barely rehabilitated torture enthusiast.” Balko has objected on Twitter:
Fair enough, but career pundit, please understand that here in the Rancid Sector, we don’t do forgiving and forgetting the way it’s done out there in pundit land, where unprincipled support for state violence is no hindrance, but rather an asset, to a long and successful career. See, I never supported torture, because SUPPORTING TORTURE IS AN EXTREMELY FUCKED UP THING TO DO, even once, and particularly unbecoming in an alleged libertarian.
Recalling Balko’s support for torture was not an arbitrary slap. His present willingness to parrot smears against Manning — predicated on the quaint notion that a high priority for whistleblowers must be keeping imperialists and their accomplices safe from harm — is in the same bad neighborhood.
I said, ‘barely rehabilitated’ because an admittedly too-cursory reading of the record suggested Balko’s original rethink –based on the grounds that government fucks everything up — wasn’t principled. In light of numerous articles Balko has written since, this language was too harsh.
Sadly, Balko thinks my original overstatement is grounds for not considering the other things in this post. So I guess you could say that, pending further notice, I’m really not that sorry for anything, though for accuracy’s sake, I’m now calling Balko an ‘ex-torture enthusiast.’
Edward Snowden: The whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations – Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Laura Poitras
The Liberal Betrayal of Bradley Manning – Charles Davis