Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (6/11/13) wrote about Edward Snowden yesterday in a way that helped make it clear why so many in the press seem upset that the former NSA consultant revealed the extent of U.S. spying programs aimed at the American public.
“I’m a journalist,” Marshall wrote.
And back when I did national security reporting I tried to get leaks. So I don’t think leaks are always wrong…. In fact, leaks are an absolutely critical safety valve against government wrongdoing and/or excessive secrecy.
But officials who leak classified information are “breaking an oath and committing a crime,” and that’s “a big deal.” Marshall draws a distinction between two perspectives on leaking:
If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it….
On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.
Marshall is upfront that he–along with, it’s safe to say, most people with prominent roles in journalism–takes the second position:
At the end of the day, for all its faults, the U.S. military is the armed force of a political community I identify with and a government I support…. I think a military force requires a substantial amount of secrecy to operate in any reasonable way. So when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason.
And from Marshall’s point of view, Bradley Manning did not have a very good reason to give thousands of government documents to WikiLeaks:
Coming from this perspective, it’s hard to see any justification for what Manning did, which is basically downloading everything he could find and giving it to a foreign national (Assange) with the expectation that he’d just dump it into the public. There were a couple clear cases of wrongdoing revealed in his documents. But the vast majority were fairly mundane diplomatic cables, military records and so forth.
Now, the idea that WikiLeaks didn’t reveal much in the way of U.S. wrongdoing is an article of faith in corporate media–and it’s not true. But consider the larger context: Manning released documents relating to the “war on terror,” in which the United States invaded and occupied two countries, killing hundreds of thousands, waged undeclared war on several other countries via a secret drone assassination program, and imprisoned thousands of people it accused of being enemies without trial, subjecting many of them to torture. Does that add up to a “really, really good reason”? Not if you “basically identify with the country and the state,” apparently.
Nor does Snowden meet Marshall’s criteria of a legitimate leaker–even though “the public definitely has an interest in knowing just how we’re using surveillance technology and how we’re balancing risks versus privacy.” What’s the problem?
I think it’s clear he’s trying to upend, damage–choose your verb–the U.S. intelligence apparatus and policies he opposes…. He’s not just opening the thing up for debate. He’s taking it upon himself to make certain things no longer possible, or much harder to do. To me, that’s a betrayal.
Snowden, in Marshall’s view, is the kind of leaker who belongs in prison: “I do not see how you can’t prosecute Snowden.” For Marshall and other journalists who fundamentally identify with the state, it’s OK to help journalists to debate surveillance policy–it’s just not OK to try to change it.