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What Snowden and Manning don’t understand about secrecy

As an old reporter who has from time to time outed classified information, I have watched the cases of Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden with professional interest.

What troubles me about them is not that they broke the oaths they swore when they took their classified government jobs, the thing that makes them liable to prosecution. Government finds all kinds of dubious reasons to keep secrets, sometimes nefarious reasons, and conscience can force one to break a promise. My problem is with the indiscriminate nature of their leaks.

These are young people at war with the concept of secrecy itself, which is just foolish. There are many legitimate reasons for governments to keep secrets, among them the need to preserve the element of surprise in military operations or criminal investigations, to permit leaders and diplomats to bargain candidly, and to protect the identities of those we ask to perform dangerous and difficult missions.

The most famous leakers in American history were motivated not by a general opposition to secrecy but by a desire to expose specific wrongdoing. Mark Felt, the “Deep Throat” who helped steer Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate reporting, understood that the Nixon Administration was energetically abusing the powers of the presidency. Daniel Ellsberg copied and leaked the Pentagon Papers because they showed that the White House and Pentagon had never really believed the lies they were telling about the Vietnam War.

In other words, they had good reasons. The reporters and editors who published their leaks weighed taking that step seriously, ultimately deciding that the public’s need to know trumped the principle of secrecy. They concluded that the government in these instances was abusing its power.

Manning and Snowden are wholesale leakers. I can’t know this for a fact, but I suspect they were not completely aware of all they carried off. It isn’t just that they didn’t completely understand what they were leaking; they literally did not know what all of it was. Computers enable individual operators to open floodgates. Out spills everything, the legitimate along with the illegitimate. It’s easy, and it’s irresponsible. It proceeds from a Julian Assange-influenced, comic-book vision  of the world where all governments are a part of an evil plot against humanity.

In my experience, government does routinely abuse its power to classify information, sometimes for ridiculous reasons. Sometimes it seems that officials declare something secret just because they can. As a transportation reporter forThe Philadelphia Inquirer, I remember battling state transportation officials to release accident information—I wanted to write a story about which intersections were the most dangerous. Never mind that knowing where it was most treacherous to drive would be useful for public safety, and that the agencies involved in collection this data were public agencies, the numbers were, I was told, a state secret. When I walked through the old US Embassy Chancery Building in Tehran in 2005, now an anti-American museum, there was an exhibit of documents seized during the 1979 takeover. The papers looked damning. They were stamped impressively, ‘Top Secret,” and “Eyes Only.” Few of the Iranian students who were marched through read English, and I’m sure few doubted that the documents on display revealed details of the Great Satan’s “plot” to derail the glorious Islamic Revolution. Close inspection revealed that the framed papers were orders from the embassy motor pool for spare parts.

There have been a few things in the Manning and Snowden leaks that might have warranted taking a principled stand, but the great bulk of what they delivered shows our nation’s military, intelligence agencies, and foreign service working hard at their jobs—doing the things we the people, through our elected representatives, have ordered them to do. It came as no surprise to me that America has been aggressively collecting massive pools of data in order to discover and derail terrorist attacks in advance, an enormously difficult thing to do, and yet the very thing Americans demanded after 9/11.

I think Manning’s 35-year prison sentence is excessive, and expect it will eventually be reduced. Whatever danger Manning (who has now asked to live as a woman named Chelsea) poses to American society can be avoided by denying her access to Pentagon computers. Snowden may have found a way to punish himself worse. He has turned himself into an enduring symbol of idiocy by fleeing the oppressive grip of Barack Obama for the open arms of that great civil libertarian, Vladimir Putin.

Both Manning and Snowden strike me not as heroes, but as naifs. Neither appears to have understood what they were getting themselves into, and, more importantly, what they were doing.

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

This originally appeared at The Atlantic. More from our sister site:

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