There’s a Big Difference Between the Actions of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden

manning-snowdenLast week I wrote an article calling Bradley Manning a traitor, which caused quite the uproar within the liberal community.  It even led to my appearance on HuffPost Live where I discussed Bradley Manning’s impact on the United States.

Well, over the last week we’ve also had the story from The Guardian involving the NSA and their tracking of the phone records and various internet activities of Americans.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it.

And just yesterday the person who leaked the information about the NSA’s secret tracking was revealed, by his own request.  His name is Edward Snowden, and he’s a former CIA employee and current employee for defense contractor Booze Allen Hamilton.

For the record, I don’t think Mr. Snowden should be prosecuted, and I certainly don’t think he’s a traitor.  I wouldn’t call him a “hero,” though his actions are indeed bold.  He chose to reveal his identity and made it clear that he doesn’t believe what he did was wrong.

And I agree with him.

I can already hear it, “But, how is what he did any different than what Bradley Manning did?”

Well, first, he’s a civilian.  Like I said in my article about Mr. Manning, when you enlist in the military you are beholden to a completely different set of rules than that of ordinary citizens—especially when you’re deployed to war.

Second, Manning took hundreds of thousands of pieces of information and dumped them into the hands of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.  Snowden took a specific issue which he found troubling and gave it over to a very reputable media outlet (though a foreign one, still very reputable internationally).  It wasn’t a reckless dump of information such as that done by Manning.

Supporters of Manning usually only look at what was revealed, not what he did.  If you’re going to be any kind of whistleblower as a member of our military, you have to be very careful and very calculated—two things Mr. Manning was not.  And you damn sure don’t hand it over to a foreigner.

He leaked 750,000 pieces of classified information.  Just because nothing that he leaked directly resulted in the death of any of our brave men and women in our military, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t have.

The information released by Mr. Snowden wasn’t anything that could possibly risk lives.  There was virtually no chance that anyone would die because Snowden leaked information about the NSA tracking the phone records and various internet activities of millions of Americans.  At the time of Manning’s leak, he had no real way of knowing what ramifications there could be once the information he exposed was shown the light of day.

Like I said in my discussion on HuffPost Live, laws don’t suddenly become nullified just because the results of breaking them weren’t catastrophic.  Imagine if something Manning carelessly leaked out did result in the deaths of thousands of Americans, would his supporters still call him a hero?  I highly doubt it.

What Snowden did was identify a possible violation of our Fourth Amendment (which many would argue has been nullified by the Patriot Act) and exposed what he felt was a massive government overreach into the private lives of Americans.

But let’s be clear about this, the government isn’t recording our phone conversations.  They’ve been tracking who you call and duration of those calls—that’s it.  And they’re probably not too concerned about the pictures of your dinner that you posted on Instagram, either.

Now the general feeling I get from most people I talk to is that they pretty much figured the government had been doing this all along.  I did a very unscientific “poll” on my Facebook page, Right Off A Cliff, asking, “Do you care that the government has been collecting the phone records of Americans?”  I allowed 200 people to respond before cutting it off and 54% didn’t care while 46% did.  Again, this isn’t a scientific poll by any means, but it does go along with the general comments I’ve gotten from most people.  About half are “outraged” and the other half simply assumed it was happening anyway.

Snowden had a clear goal in exposing this information—to get Americans talking about this issue.  In his interview with The Guardian he stated:

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in.”

If you read the whole interview, he clearly understands the ramifications of his actions.  He carefully planned what he would release and had a careful plan once he released it.  And he clearly did it with a purpose—one I happen to agree with.

Because there needs to be a debate in this country about what is and isn’t allowed in our national security.   And unfortunately, as it stands now, there are far more questions than answers on this issue.

On one hand, you have the argument that the government tracking the phone records and internet activities of Americans without reasonable cause clearly violates our Fourth Amendment.

However, a thought that’s come to my mind is a reflection on presidential candidate Barack Obama, who was insistent on more transparency within our national security if he were to become president.  The key part here, of course, was that he was only a candidate for the presidency—he hadn’t been elected and assumed office as of yet.

So I’ve wondered if as an outsider, not knowing what presidents know about our national security, did what he find out when he became president change his mind?  After all, how do we know the information they’ve collected in some of these questionable ways hasn’t prevented horrific tragedies like that of 9/11, or even worse?  We’d never know for sure if some kind of attack was prevented, because it didn’t happen.

I had a professor in school who had previously worked for the Department of Defense.  He often spoke about the fact that what Americans think they know about threats and our national security isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.  He also said that if people knew what he did, or heard what he’s heard, that many would understand why secrecy is so important.  He implied frequently that it’s naive for people who’ve never worked in defense or intelligence to assume they know what’s going on, when they’re making judgments mostly blind to any and all facts.

Even the most liberal or liberty-minded person would have to admit this is fairly accurate.  What we know about our intelligence is mostly assumed based on data and information that’s often objective.

But Edward Snowden’s actions, while quite possibly criminal because he did remove sensitive information illegally from the federal government, have helped to stir the debate on government surveillance of Americans.  That’s exactly what he hoped would happen—and it’s something the White House has said it “welcomed.”

The question is, will President Obama take the debate seriously?  I really hope so.

Allen Clifton

Allen Clifton is a native Texan who now lives in the Austin area. He has a degree in Political Science from Sam Houston State University. Allen is a co-founder of Forward Progressives and creator of the popular Right Off A Cliff column and Facebook page. Be sure to follow Allen on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to his channel on YouTube as well.


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