Yeah, I’m opening this can of worms. Here we go.
Let’s compare the two before we contrast them. PFC Bradley Manning—or whatever he calls himself nowadays—was a soldier whose MOS involved intelligence analysis. He’s also the one who “blew the whistle” on the US Army for a few things, most notorious among them a video recording of an Apache helicopter killing some reporters by mistake, an incident that was then covered up. He also released a buttload of other tidbits to WikiLeaks, too, but that’s the one everybody fixates on most. He was court-martialed and found guilty of enough charges to warrant a 35 year stint in prison followed by a dishonorable discharge.
Edward Snowden is a computer specialist (“geek” to us laymen) who did some work for the CIA and NSA and likewise suffered from a fit of informational incontinence, although the intel he released concerned primarily non-military assets. He let the world know that the NSA had been directing some of its efforts toward US citizens rather than, as had been widely presumed, against foreign entities and operatives. He’s currently hiding in Russia and Uncle Sam would very much like to get hold of him.
The thing about Manning is that he swore an oath when he enlisted and likely had to submit to further orders regarding secrecy when he got his security clearance and got to work. By releasing his information to the public without authorization, he violated his oath of office and his orders in a big way. For the civilians in the world, that’s a Very Bad Thing. Now let me be clear* in this much, at least. The deaths of the reporters by an American helicopter should not have been covered up and the release of the video, while embarrassing, at least had the effect of getting the Army to own up to it. War is an ugly business and while mistakes happen, man up and accept your role in whatever happens. It was wrong to have happened but worse to have been buried. If you don’t want bad things to happen, don’t be engaged in the business of warfare, but you accept the burden of waging war, you get everything that goes with it. End of sermon.
Had Manning simply stopped at that, likely he’d have just gotten a butt-chewing and demotion, possibly with a dishonorable DX in the worst case, but that wasn’t good enough. He had to release more information on the grounds that he found it “disturbing” and that’s what got him nailed. Now a bit of clarification for my civilian readers who may be limited in their experience with military matters (not that I’m an expert, but if I were, I’d likely have to drone you if I said anything else!) The release of intelligence like this is a twofold danger. Firstly, you’ve told your enemy what you know about them. Now they can change their plans, figure out what you might have in store for them and counter you, or scatter like roaches when you’d intended to have them grouped together for a nice, tidy bunker-busting session. Secondly, now they know how you know this. You’ve just shown them what methods you’re using to spy on them. Now they can get new cell phones, kill any human resources you went to such lengths to have infiltrate them, or learn where their operational weaknesses are and cover them to take away whatever advantage you had.
This is what pissed the Army off so badly, and justly so. That’s a lot of damage done to the military’s intelligence network that may take years to rebuild. Then there’s the whole breaking the oath and disobeying orders thing. Turncoats and people who pull the rug from under their comrades are not popular in the military.
Snowden’s case, outwardly similar, is just a bit different. While he did have his orders and may have sworn an oath, the information he released indicated that the agencies he was working for might have been working outside their authority, if not in a blatantly extralegal (okay, I’ll say it…”illegal”) manner.
The information Snowden’s employers collected may very well have been obtained in violation of US laws as well as the Constitution itself, and that’s the big difference between Manning’s and Snowden’s cases. Most of Manning’s information was gathered as part of the Army’s usual duties and while some of it was objectionable and embarrassing, it was legally obtained as part of the mission. (I’m still not certain whether he had any business accessing or releasing diplomatic cables; I doubt he had been authorized to handle them in the first place, but it’s beside the point anyway.) Snowden’s information revealed what appears to be improper and illegal activities of the NSA and/or CIA, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Manning betrayed the trust placed in him by the Army and by proxy, by us, the citizens that the Army and Manning were supposed to protect. Snowden shone a light on the illicit activities of an organization that purports to defend us but in reality was spying on us, among others. While Snowden may have broken an oath, he did so to point out wrongdoing. Manning did it because he was sad. There were things released that had no bearing on what bothered him so, but he did it anyway because he was “conflicted.” (Obviously so, since he can’t even come to terms with his gender.)
I wish I could be more wordy and prosaic and fill this post with all kinds of witticisms and such, but I’ve already said what I intended to. Manning is a traitor to his country and his fellow soldiers. Snowden, while also an oath-breaker, is a whistleblower. There’s a big difference between leaking information because you’re “disturbed” or “upset” versus pointing out violations of the Constitution.
*copyright Barack H. Obama, 2001-2013