Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers and Watergate fame, was quoted in news reports as predicting that the government had dodged a bullet in not convicting Manning of aiding the enemy. Otherwise, he said, it could have been disruptive to press freedom by deterring sources. In retrospect, Ellsberg’s leak of the think-tank version of the Vietnam War was far less potentially disruptive than either that of Manning or Snowden. That leak was causing dwindling attention until the Nixon administration tried to restrain publication, much of which already had been published.
Snowden’s case is different. He has conceded that he took the job at the National Security Agency to get access to its activities with the goal of making them public. That seems to me to be a calculated job of spying, no matter what he did with the information. It also is an indictment of a system that obviously failed to vet its contract applicants.
There is some worth in Snowden’s leaks, however. They have stirred up controversy in Congress and elsewhere about the extent of NSA electronic surveillance activities — especially of Americans — and have stimulated debate over whether the court that oversees eavesdropping requests should be reorganized.
At the same time, it is difficult to excuse Snowden or feel sorry for him in his predicament. The programs and the activities he revealed had as much impact on our allies and enemies overseas as it did here. It would not be a big step to consider him a traitor, and he clearly realized that as he waited weeks for asylum, now granted in Russia. Snowden, too, is being managed by an Assange disciple.
Manning now faces the sentencing phase of his conviction. Those following the trial think he ultimately will spend a major chunk of his life in prison. He already has claimed he was abused by his military jailers while awaiting trial. One can only wonder if Manning’s zeal for righting what he considered government’s wrongs has diminished. If it hasn’t, a prison sentence just might do it.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.