Pfc. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are very different breeds of leakers, but they’re both examples of systemic security failures and personal arrogance.
The systemic part might be fixable. The people who review access to state secrets aren’t likely to be rubber-stamping security clearances for a while. Snowden and Manning — who is now being court-martialed — never would have gotten the information they spilled except for negligence on the part of their superiors.
Manning’s case is complex, but the detail that intersects national security is simple: An obviously troubled enlisted 22-year-old had easy access to staggering quantities of classified information at an Army base outside Baghdad, Iraq.
The Army’s information networks had to be spectacularly vulnerable.
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Same deal with Snowden. A brilliant hacker working for the National Security Agency in Hawaii, he outfoxed the spooks who were supposed to spot even suspicious key strokes, and he tapped into documents supposedly restricted to only a few dozen NSA hierarchs.
If a low-ranking civilian contractor can get into the top-secret files of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, what might actual enemies of the United States be able to get into? These cases scream for radical restructurings of security practices in both the NSA and the Pentagon.
As for Manning and Snowden themselves, they are heroes only if one believes that it’s impossible to leak too much of America’s classified information.
Manning has said he wanted to expose what he considered American wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. He could have done that by releasing far less information than he did.
Instead, he appears to have grabbed anything and everything he could lay his hands on, including hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, military reports and other documents that hostile governments and terrorists will be feasting on for years to come.
This wasn’t an act of principle; it was an act of revenge.
Snowden, older and smarter, was more selective. What he released had a connection to his stated complaint about the NSA’s sweeping surveillance of telephone and Internet communications.
His leak would have been more understandable had he exposed instances of J. Edgar Hoover-style wiretapping of U.S. citizens — evidence that the NSA’s hunt for suspicious patterns in telecommunications had escalated into actual illegal eavesdropping.
So far, though, the evidence suggests that the NSA has been operating lawfully at the behest of an elected president under the oversight of federal judges and the leaders of an elected Congress.
If Snowden is entitled to second-guess the entire constitutional system, then any of the million-plus people who hold top-secret security clearances is entitled to do the same. You can’t run a country that way, much less a counterterrorist operation.