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Justin Vernold

July 6, 2013

Snowden is neither hero nor traitor

The case of National Security Agency contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden has been accurately described as a sort of political Rorschach test. Describe him to multiple people, and some will see a national hero and willing martyr for the right to privacy. Others would say he’s a traitor.
 
In my line of work, one’s instinct is to always come to the defense of those who leak classified information. Journalists generally believe that more information is always better — at least in the hands of fellow journalists, who presumably have sound enough judgment to handle sensitive information tactfully. A leak of classified information, after all, isn’t an honorable act in and of itself, and could come from a disgruntled employee or would-be saboteur with an ax to grind.
 
Snowden’s story is similar to that of Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst facing a court-martial after leaking classified information to WikiLeaks in 2010.
 
On one hand, Manning exposed the harsh and often-ignored truth about the ugliness of warfare. The July 2007 Baghdad air strike that mistakenly killed two Reuters journalists and the May 2009 Afghanistan air strike that left some 100 civilians dead were both exposed by Manning, and both merited the public’s attention, regardless of what the Pentagon may think.
 
But it’s hard to defend the sheer volume of secret data Manning leaked indiscriminately, including more than 250,000 diplomatic cables and 400,000 army war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these were otherwise mundane documents that described no wrongdoing — but became a gold mine of military intelligence for al-Qaida and foreign states that view the U.S. with hostility or suspicion.
 
As someone with a brother who served in Iraq, I can’t help but wonder about the consequences of Manning leaking after-action reports, intelligence sources and diplomatic maneuvering. Manning’s leaks were mostly a so-called data dump, rather than actual whistle-blowing, because there’s no way he had enough time to read his entire trove of documents before passing them along.

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Justin Vernold
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