Leakers and Leaks: Not Perfect People

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It is easy to talk about leaks as an abstract exercise in rebellion and democracy. But we have had two prolific leakers within the last few years: Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. Their experiences should demonstrate the risks that come with trusting leakers to act in the public’s best interest.

Manning, according to his own defense team, was originally interested in releasing a single video. The video, labeled “Collateral Murder” on the WikiLeaks site, detailed how American soldiers in Iraq had fired on two unmarked vehicles after being attacked from the area. The US soldiers killed the journalists and civilian family in the cars during the counterattack.

After the initial video leaks, Julian Assange initiated contact with Manning, and ultimately convinced Manning to make further leaks, which ended in the thousands of diplomatic cables that made WikiLeaks famous.

Then we have Snowden. In April 2012, Snowden began downloading classified files while working as a contractor for the US intelligence community. He also began to work with several journalists, such as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. He continued doing so until May 2013, when he fled the country for Hong Kong and ultimately Moscow.

His initial leak focused on the PRISM program, a clandestine data-mining program created by the PATRIOT Act. However, later leaks have covered a broader field of topics, such as the Chinese targets of US cyber espionage.

One big thing to take away from all this is that neither leaker was a good judge of what to leak. In neither case did Manning or Snowden only leak a single damaging document. They both leaked huge amounts of data with minimal, if any, review, and this failure has caused enormous damage to US foreign affairs.

In Manning’s case, many people at the State Department have discussed how groups have been wary of talking to the US on the record after the leaks. Unfortunately, that choice has a logic to it: journalists and the staff of human rights organizations in several countries—including China, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Syria—have had to flee their countries after being named in the leaked cables.

For Snowden, the case is even worse. According to the Telegraph, British authorities found around 58,000 documents related to the UK’s security—almost 60 gigabytes worth of data—when it detained David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow Airport. It is hard to imagine Snowden managing to carefully reviewing each document, considering that he only collected the data in about one year. When many of these documents have already revealed America’s intelligence methods overseas, more scrutiny was clearly needed.

Individuals who override the entire classification process do not have a great track record when deciding what to leak. They have egos and interests, as do the people they have to work with to make a leak, and these factors have a tangible effect on their decisions. In reality, extensive safeguards—including legislative and judicial oversight—exist to protect the US public from intelligence overreach. In light of these scandals, some measures should be strengthened to restore some faith in the system. But let us not make a martyr out of people that have left a trail of suffering in their wake.

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