The case of Edward Snowden, who came out yesterday (Sunday) as the leaker supplying the info to the Washington Post and the Guardian about the NSA's data-harvesting program, on first impression reminds me more of Daniel Ellsberg than of Bradley Manning.
I opposed what Manning did. I thought his actions were reckless. He did a data dump, making secret information public without knowing what it was or what he was really doing. I remember mentioning, for example, an Ethiopian journalist who wound up in the hot seat because of the WikiLeaks release.
Manning's act was that of a goofball anarchist. Snowden's, by contrast, seems to have been one of civil disobedience. That is, he seems to have known exactly what he was doing. Snowden does seem to have some elements of Manning, a mixed-up kid, but on balance seems to me to be more of an Ellsberg -- that is, a disillusioned insider who was appalled by what he saw and made a choice to disclose the existence of certain government programs.
As for the assurances of intelligence officials that we should not worry because they will be careful: I don't buy them. The intelligence community has not come clean about the torture of captives, so why should it have credibility on this? At any rate, the health of our Bill of Rights should not be dependent upon the constitutional interpretations and tender mercies of secret policemen and their staff lawyers.
So, do I think Snowden should go to jail? Yes, I think he should expect to. Martin Luther King, Jr. did too, when he consciously broke the law in protest. Breaking the law to make a point and then doing some time in consequence fit well within the American tradition. That said, knowing what I know now, I would hope it would be just a few months on a prison farm.
I have several friends who have a very different view, and think this guy is more of a Philip Agee, someone who has changed sides, and should be considered at worst a traitor and at best a self-righteous little jerk. Listening to them, I have to admit to some qualms. Foremost is Snowden's flight to Hong Kong. I want to know more about that before concluding that this guy was right. Leaving the country is not what a pure act of civil disobedience would entail. In addition, I find his choice of refuge, Hong Kong, a bit odd. It looks more like a defection than civil disobedience. It is possible that this guy will turn out to be more Guy Burgess than Daniel Ellsberg.
Speaking of Burgess, I would like to know if Snowden is providing cover for other, still undisclosed leakers. If so, that might change the equation, too. Wouldn't real civil disobedience call for a clean slate? That is, "This is who we are, and this is what we did, and why we did it."
The Guardian via Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.