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Dear New York Times Editors: If Snowden Is a Whistleblower, What Is Chelsea Manning?

Chelsea Manning (left) and Edward Snowden (right)

The New York Times Editorial Board is to be highly praised for finally publishing a strong defense of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, one which not only urges clemency but also labels him a whistleblower. But, it invites debate on another individual, one who is currently serving thirty-five years in a military prison for releasing classified government documents to WikiLeaks: Chelsea Manning.

If it is reasonable to argue that Snowden deserves clemency, doesn’t Manning deserve clemency as well? And isn’t she a whistleblower too?

I praised the New York Times editors for their editorial. Nonetheless, I find it worthwhile to challenge the Times.

Manning released the “Collateral Murder” video and over a half million documents to WikiLeaks. The documents included military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, which were released as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghanistan War Logs. Over 250,000 US State Embassy cables were provided to WikiLeaks. Over 700 detainee assessment briefs on Guantanamo Bay prisoners were given to WikiLeaks as well.

WikiLeaks partnered with The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times on the the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan War Logs in 2010. The Times was not an official WikiLeaks partner for the release of diplomatic cables but obtained a copy of the set from The Guardian.

Many of the arguments the Times editors make in defense of Snowden could actually be made for Manning.

According to the Times, Snowden revealed “how NSA has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority.” A similar argument could be made about what was revealed in the war logs and diplomatic cables.

The Times editors suggest Snowden “deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight. He may have committed a crime to do so, but he has done his country a great service.” Does Manning deserve better than to spend more than thirty years of her life in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth?

Additionally, the editors contend Snowden should “have a hope of a life advocating for greater privacy and far stronger oversight of the runaway intelligence community.” Manning could be an effective advocate too, if she were not imprisoned. She could call attention to how the United States loses its humanity when fighting wars and the need to accept responsibility for conduct when innocent civilians are killed, rather than hiding behind “the veil of national security and classified information.”

Just as the Times makes clear that Snowden could not have gone through “proper channels,” it would have been impossible for Manning as well. The scale of information that she uncovered and found to be in the public interest would never have seen the light of day. Had she sent specific documents in the sets to get the attention of members of Congress or had she gone to superiors within the military and said this should not be secret, she most certainly would have lost her security clearance. The material would have remained concealed.

If one accepts that Snowden tried to go to his superiors and they took no action after he expressed his misgivings because they did not “consider the collection programs to be an abuse,” shouldn’t it also be accepted that Manning had a similar experience?

In 2010, while stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Baghdad, Pfc. Bradley Manning decided to approach a superior officer in his chain of command to voice his concern about something he had stumbled upon in his capacity as an intelligence analyst. His unit had been helping Iraqi federal police identify suspects for detention and discovered that fifteen men had been arrested for producing “anti-Iraqi literature.” After having a high-resolution photo of the “literature” translated into English, Manning discovered that the writing was hardly criminal; it was a “scholarly critique” of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But his superior officer did not want to hear about it. Manning knew if he continued to assist the police in identifying political opponents, innocent people would be jailed, likely tortured, and “not seen again for a very long time, if ever,” as he told a military courtroom in Fort Meade, MD on February 28. Hoping to expose what was happening ahead of the Iraq parliamentary election, on March 7, 2010, Manning shared the information with WikiLeaks.

Six bullet points on violations Snowden revealed and legal actions he provoked are offered by the Times editors to further advance the argument that he is a whistleblower. Certainly, the same could be done for Manning:

  • Manning revealed a video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack, which shows two Reuters journalists being gunned down in Baghdad. The video, which featured soldiers begging superior officers for orders to fire on individuals, was withheld from Reuters, even though the media organization filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
  • Frago 242, which the US and the UK appeared to have adopted as a way of excusing them from having to take responsibility for torture or ill-treatment of Iraqis by Iraqi military or security forces, was revealed in the Iraq War Logs.
  • Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to secretly allow US cruise missile or drone attacks that he would say were launched by his government
  • Both the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama pressured Spain and Germany not to investigate torture authorized by Bush administration officials
  • US government was well aware of rampant corruption in the Tunisian ruling family of President Ben Ali and the FBI trained torturers in Egypt’s state security service. The information released by Manning was one of the “small things” that helped to inspire the Arab Spring
  • Al Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj was sent to Guantanamo Bay prison “to provide information” on the “al Jazeera news network’s training program, telecommunications equipment and newsgathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan, including the network’s acquisition of a video of [Osama bin Laden] and a subsequent interview” of bin Laden, a clear attack on press freedom
  • Partly basing its ruling on diplomatic cables Manning released, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the court condemned the CIA for its extraordinary rendition program and found Macedonia had been responsible for the torture and violation of German car salesman Khaled el-Masri’s rights when he was abducted. Macedonia was ordered to pay $78,500 in damages to Masri.

The above bullet points only begin to demonstrate the scale of abuse, corruption, misconduct, war crimes and violations of international law that were shown in documents. (Much more on what she revealed and why she is a classic whistleblower can be found here and here.)

In both cases, Snowden and Manning revealed significant abuses of the classification system in the United States. Much of the information should probably not have been secret (and certainly not for the next 20-25 years).

Snowden himself said, when he revealed he was the source for stories on the NSA, that “Manning was a classic whistleblower.” She “was inspired by the public good.”

At this point, the main historical difference between Manning and Snowden is that Snowden—and the journalists involved in publishing his disclosures—managed to get the political class to respond and acknowledge that the debate he wanted was worth having. Yet, it should not make a person less of a whistleblower if their disclosures do not manage to shake the foundations of government in such a way that parts of the power structure start to accept things will have to change. It cannot be the fault of the whistleblower that government has made itself immune to revelations of corruption.

Manning has formally requested a presidential pardon from Obama. Her lawyer, David Coombs, declared that her sentence was “disproportionate to both the offense and the offender. It will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on future whistleblowers and damage the public’s perception of military justice.”

Finally, this is not only an issue for the Times editors to confront but one all of American society should consider. It gets to the problem of how we fail whistleblowers as a country by ignoring them and allowing government to punish and silence them for trying to reveal to us the truth.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."