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Opinion: Responsible rebellion

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We have a natural inclination in this country to celebrate rebellion, to make heroes out of outlaws and nonconformists. It stems, perhaps, from our revolutionary history while Americans may sometimes defer too much to the will of the powerful, we still hold a special place in our hearts for the rebels. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

Perhaps then it was natural that many Americans, especially young millennials for whom free information is a right and not a privilege, were quick to criticize and condemn the conviction and 35-year sentence of Private Chelsea Manning. Manning is responsible for the largest leak of sensitive information in American history. The leak included diplomatic cables, classified documents and secret battlefield reports, some of which shine light on apparent wrongdoing by U.S. forces and government entities. All of this information was published on the activist website WikiLeaks. These actions would seem to place Pvt. Manning among the ranks of a particular unit of American rebels; the whistleblowers. That popular designation is misguided.

First, one must consider the indiscriminate nature of the leak which is unique to Manning’s case. When WikiLeaks publishes information it is conspicuously referred as a “dump;” a far less surgical term than “leak.” In this way, it is hard to compare Manning’s dump to Daniel Ellsberg, who until Manning was probably the best-known government whistleblower in American history. Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers was intended specifically to expose battlefield inefficiencies in Vietnam and deliberate deceptions of the public on the part of the White House. It is difficult if not impossible to pin down exactly what Manning’s intent was for no other reason than her revelations are more scattershot, revealing civilian deaths during U.S. operations in Iraq and some diplomatic idiosyncrasies, but no particular, scandalous instance of high-level wrongdoing.

Another reason why Manning cannot be compared to Ellsberg is the measures Ellsberg took to release only that information which he knew would do no harm. While copying the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg withheld certain information when necessary to protect individuals and diplomatic efforts from harm. It seems impossible given Manning’s indiscriminate dumping of information that she was taking the same respectable precautions.

Finally, the methods by which Manning chose to disseminate her information must be scrutinized. Daniel Ellsberg first gave the Pentagon Papers to Senators George McGovern and J. William Fulbright, legislators he knew to be critics of the Vietnam War. When neither senator was able to make meaningful use of the documents, Ellsberg gave the Papers to the New York Times and The Washington Post for publication. Ellsberg wanted to work from within the system even while trying to subvert it.

Similar circumstances surround the case of Edward Snowden. Snowden, like Ellsberg, had a specific intent with his revelations which was to expose the massive domestic spying program being conducted by the NSA. Like Ellsberg, he released only that information which was relevant to his intent and only information which apparently poses no harm to any individuals. Also like Ellsberg, Snowden released his information to a trusted newspaper, The Guardian, and his leak was left in the careful hands of professional journalists.

“Professional,” “trusted” and “journalist” are not words which can accurately describe WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. Manning has claimed that she first went to respectable newspapers with her information, yet ultimately it ended up in the less-than-measured hands of Assange. Assange, too, is someone who has taken on the undeserved persona of the dashing rebel in the imaginations of young Americans, and so maybe it makes sense to find him in league with Chelsea Manning.

It would be foolish to dismiss the severity of our nation’s overzealous national security state. Edward Snowden, like Daniel Ellsberg thirty years ago, revealed the systematic and long-term betrayal of the American people by their government. Both men did so carefully, through the established, proven, trusted and deliberate systems of responsible journalism and checks and balances.

Chelsea Manning revealed a collection of classified information, classified not only to protect the betrayers of American trust, but in some ways to protect individuals in far-off battlefields. For reasons unknown, she provided wide-ranging intelligence to an organization that is known for reckless behavior; perhaps aiding some unseemly characters in the process. Chelsea Manning is not a hero, not even a rebel in the romantic sense, for the line between rebel and rogue is a thin but clear one and we call it responsibility.

 

 

 

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