It may be ironic, that as one major whistleblower stands trial on espionage charges, another stands before television cameras to declare his deed to the world, most assuredly sealing his own fate as a free man for some time to come.
But it should come as no surprise. Bradley Manning, and to the same extent, Julian Assange, have risked everything – their freedom of movement the gravest of sacrifices – so that other people of conscience would feel compelled to do the same, creating a “culture of conscientious whistleblowing” that has turned an underground movement of support into an emergent mainstream community that now includes major media, elected officials and a phalanx of legal minds on both sides of the political aisle.
In other words, thanks to Assange and Manning, the time is ripe for the much-awaited reckoning of the post-9/11 secrecy and surveillance state, to even the score with the government, which has until this time voraciously claimed such extraordinary powers to spy on Americans as though we had been responsible for the terrorist attacks on that clear fall day in 2001.
This culture of conscientious whistleblowing had no doubt encouraged 29-year-old Edward Snowden, who just admitted to leaking information about the National Security Agency’s secret electronic spy programs involving the Internet and phone surveillance of millions of Americans. In the last few years, this culture has given shelter and brought what could have been a shadowy persecution of government whistleblowers into a bright and boisterous debate.
Think Thomas Drake, Peter Van Buren, Tony Shaffer, Bill Binney, John Kiriakou (also sitting in jail). All have enjoyed (or continue to enjoy) a haven of support and a public platform on which to share their stories. Some have been reincarnated into new lives as activists and spokespersons after career loss and ex-communication by colleagues and old friends. They’ve been in the media constantly, as has their lawyer/advocate Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower herself.
Independent journalists like Kevin Gosztola, Alex O’Brien, Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald have taken up the mantle for the Fourth Estate, and have forced their friends in the often pusillanimous corporate media to listen. Knowing this, Snowden also leaked to Greenwald, who broke the first story on Verizon and on PRISM for The Guardian last week, and with the Washington Post’s Poitras interviewed Snowden on camera Sunday. Snowden told Greenwald about how he, an “infrastructure analyst” working for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, came to his decision about disclosing the agency’s programs:
“You recognize that some of these things are actually abuses … over time that awareness of wrong-doing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about it. And the more you talk about it the more you are ignored and told it’s not a problem. Until eventually you realize these are things need to be talked about in the public, not simply by someone who’s been hired by the government.”
His story became front page, above-the-fold news overnight. “I understand that I will be made to suffer from my actions,” he told Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman, who Snowden had been cultivating for the leak since early May. The Post broke PRISM the same time as The Guardian did.
“As I advanced and learned the dangerous truth behind the U.S. policies that seek to develop secret, irresistible powers and concentrate them in the hands of an unaccountable few, human weakness haunted me,” he wrote to Gellman, explaining his actions. “As I worked in secret to resist them, selfish fear questioned if the stone thrown by a single man could justify the loss of everything he loves.”
“I have come to my answer.”
Snowden should know – and perhaps this knowledge comforted him in his decision – that he is not the only stone thrower (though as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg pointed out in the Post Monday, “there has never been a more important disclosure to the American people than the leak [by Snowden]).
Snowden says he plans to seek asylum “from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy.” As of the interview, he was in Hong Kong. He knows the CIA or any of their allies in the Hong Kong government are coming to get him. The police have already visited his house in Hawaii, where he was working for Booz Allen Hamilton and decided to make the disclosures.
No doubt he is thinking of Assange, who asked for and received political asylum from the Ecuadoran government and has been holed up at the Ecuadoran embassy in London since last June. Technically, Assange sought asylum in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, which wants him in connection with sexual assault charges launched by two women who knew Assange there. But really he is afraid the Swedes will hand him over to the U.S., which is currently investigating WikiLeaks in connection with Manning’s case. Reports this week indicate that the Brits and the Ecuadorans will be meeting to discuss his fate ahead of the first year anniversary of his asylum.
And no doubt Snowden paid careful attention to how Manning is being prosecuted at this very moment in a military court martial. One of the biggest arguments to counter Manning’s conscientious leak claims is that he “dumped” 700,000 documents on the world without looking at a fraction of them. Agents and informants could be unnecessarily hurt by the disclosures, which, unlike the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago, did not appear to have a “narrow scope.”
Here is Gellman:
Despite our previous dispute about publishing the PRISM document in full, Snowden said he did not intend to release a pile of unedited documents upon the world. “I don’t desire to enable the Bradley Manning argument that these were released recklessly and unreviewed,” he said.
When WikiLeaks revealed Collateral Murder in 2010, the mainstream punditocracy emptied a fusillade of dirty ad hominem attacks against Assange – he was a narcissistic freak, a terrorist and an evil nerd vampire, sucking at secrets like blood and then moving on, a predatory peacock. When he was granted asylum, the mainstream pounced once again.
Meanwhile, pundits and government officials called for his prosecution, even his assassination. The same with Bradley Manning. But something funny has happened on the way to the gallows: the more that is revealed about the secrets the government has been keeping, the more the public sees whistleblowers sacrificing all for the truth, the more that well-liked politicians on both sides of the aisle demand the government come clean – like Rand Paul (R-Ky.), like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). More so, the formerly namby-pamby media seems to be keeping its focus on the outrageous government activity for once, and not just the leakers themselves.
Republican lawmakers, whatever their motivations, are backing away from the President’s claims that they all had been “briefed” about the NSA’s secret programs. Plus, as the media realizes that it, too, is a victim of overreach (the FBI sucking up the AP’s phone records like a Hoover; the criminal subpoena for Fox reporter Jim Rosen’s phone and email records), the more sympathy and regard all of these whistleblowers seem to get as a potent movement, rather than just the rash action of egocentric individuals. Thus, the “culture of conscientious whistleblowing” thrives.
In the news Monday after Snowden became an instant Internet sensation, crowd-sourced funding for his defense costs sprang up, according to early reporting. Speaking on Fox Monday afternoon, Judge Andrew Napolitano called Snowden a “Great American Hero.” Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has called for a “New Church Committee” investigation to fully investigate the scope of government surveillance on Americans. Big Brother may be on the hot seat yet.
But how many of these folks will have to go to jail before that happens, and the rest of the country wakes up and realizes this is a problem that effects us all and that these whistleblowers are patriots, not unpatriotic scum? It might not be too long now, thanks to Edward Snowden. He may not ever see the light of day again, but his willingness to sacrifice is one battle in a conflict that, if won, will help keep us all out of the dark, hopefully, for sometime to come.
He told Greenwald he had to decide: “If living unfreely but comfortably is something you’re willing to accept – and I think many of us are, it’s the human nature – you can get up every day, you can go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work, against the public interest, and go to sleep every night after watching your shows.”
“But if you realize that that is a world you helped to create and it’s going to get worse with the next generation and the next generation, who extend the capabilities of this sort of architecture of oppression, you realize you might be willing to accept any risk and it doesn’t matter what the outcome is as long as the public gets to make their own decision about how that is applied.”
Revenge of the Nerds never had such a sweet invocation. Remember they win at the end of the movie. We all do. And we should know now who to thank.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- Brother Karzai Leaves Election, Joins Another Ticket – March 10th, 2014
- The Wailing Cassandras Return – February 27th, 2014
- Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid! – February 19th, 2014
- How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars – February 9th, 2014
- Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism – February 2nd, 2014