What should we make of Edward Snowden, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and Julian Assange? Their names are known across the globe, yet the actions that made them famous have also driven them to lives of intense isolation—in hiding, in prison, or in a foreign embassy. They have been lionized as heroes and condemned as traitors. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), and Manning, a low-level army intelligence analyst, are responsible for the two largest unauthorized disclosures of classified information in the nation’s history.
Manning released to Assange’s website, WikiLeaks, about 720,000 secret documents from the State and Defense Departments, and Assange published them on the Internet. The NSA still doesn’t know the full extent of the information Snowden stole and passed on to the journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Barton Gellman, but it estimates the number to be 1.7 million classified documents, concerning some of the US’s most closely guarded secret surveillance programs.
The federal government views Manning and Snowden as criminals. It tried and convicted Manning for violating the Espionage Act and he was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. (Manning subsequently announced that he was changing his gender, and hereafter would be known as Chelsea.) The government has charged Snowden with stealing government property and violating the Espionage Act, although he has thus far evaded trial by obtaining temporary asylum in Russia. And the Justice Department has empaneled a grand jury to investigate Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London seeking to evade extradition to Sweden for alleged sex crimes.
The prosecutors in Manning’s trial repeatedly contended that Assange actively encouraged Manning’s crimes. In November, however, a Justice Department official told the The Washington Post that Assange would not likely be prosecuted for publishing Manning’s documents. According to former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller, “if you are not going to prosecute journalists for publishing classified information, which the department is not, then there is no way to prosecute Assange.” But the grand jury investigation continues.
Others praise Manning, Snowden, and Assange for exposing our government’s secret and legally dubious activities at home and abroad. Snowden’s revelations about the scope of NSA electronic surveillance have touched off a much-needed national and global debate about privacy in the digital age. Indeed, because of his influence he was rumored to have been the runner-up to Pope Francis for Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Manning’s and Assange’s disclosures had much less dramatic effect, but they, too, revealed a host of potential abuses, including US troops in Iraq killing civilians, the US State Department spying on foreign UN officials, and a secret agreement between Yemen and the United States to permit US drone strikes there on the condition that they not be publicly admitted.
These leaks, the most significant since Daniel Ellsberg made the Pentagon Papers available to The New York Times and The Washington…
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