Everyone is writing and thinking about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, whose first revelations were published one year ago today. But it was also one year ago that Chelsea Manning’s trial began at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Manning provided the “Collateral Murder” video, hundreds of thousands of military incident reports from Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of United States diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. She was convicted of multiple offenses including five Espionage Act offenses in 2013 and was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.
I spoke to Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg months ago after Manning’s trial had wrapped. I only asked him to reflect on Manning but it was impossible for him not to compare her case to Snowden and discuss the importance of the two. As a result, Ellsberg provided some very insightful thoughts on what both Manning and Snowden did and why there was such a difference in the reaction to their acts.
“It’s speculation, but I feel pretty confident that Edward Snowden would not have thought of doing what he did do without the example of ChelseaManning in front of him,” Ellsberg suggested.
Ellsberg said that Snowden had communicated to him that he had viewed the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America, which tells the story of how Ellsberg came to release the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and how President Richard Nixon tried to destroy him. Snowden apparently indicated to Ellsberg that viewing this film hardened his resolve to release NSA documents to the public.
Both Manning and Snowden have exposed the issue of what is appropriate government secrecy to public debate for the first time ever, Ellsberg argued.
Manning raised those issues when defending the material that she took. She gave clear explanation for why documents should not have been kept from the public. Snowden has done this in the past year as well.
Yet, Ellsberg reasoned that there had been a more positive reaction to Snowden than Manning because, “Chelsea Manning revealed to us what we, our government, was doing to ‘others,’ foreigners, other people abroad” Americans were not all that concerned about “what was being done to other people that they didn’t identify with.” In contrast, Snowden showed “what our government was doing to us here at home.”
There is much truth to that assessment, but one clarification should be made. Snowden has released much information that shows how the NSA has turned its vast surveillance capabilities against the citizens of countries all over the world. As with Manning’s disclosures, it has been exceptionally difficult to focus attention and discussion on the violations of privacy of populations outside the US simply because politicians and pundits have rationalized that all countries spy on each other plus the US is not required under the Constitution to respect the privacy of foreigners.
Manning said she wanted to “show what the First World was doing to the Third World and that was the reason for this wholesale release of 250,000 State Department cables showing basically the imperial policies and the fact that we were manipulating, bribing, threatening, coercing in various ways nearly every country in the world,” Ellsberg further explained.
Ellsberg reflected on his past experience, drawing comparisons between the push for wars today and what he experienced during Vietnam. He emphasized that the president was able to get away with lying to Congress because he could count on hundreds of thousands of officials like him keeping his mouth shut when they knew he was telling total lies.
“I was no Chelsea Manning in 1964 or Edward Snowden nor was anybody else, who could have acted as they did act later and say here are the documents. Here is the evidence that we are planning a wider war right after the election,” Ellsberg declared. “The lack of a Manning or a Snowden, as I say also in the run-up to Iraq, was crucial to getting us into Iraq based on lies.”
The secrecy that Manning challenged may be continuing. There may be more lies. The imperial policies may persist, but Ellsberg said “thanks to the example of Manning’s courage” others are willing to come forward. Others like Snowden were able to learn what to do so they would be able to be more effective. After all, Snowden fled the country knowing that he could not speak openly and defend his actions from a jail cell in the US.
Finally, Ellsberg does not consider it to be an exaggeration to suggest as Manning did, “If there is no discussion and no debate, I will officially despair of our species.” The species is hurtling toward extinction as Americans ignore the issue of nuclear weapons and climate change. Ellsberg believes Manning showed the importance of contesting gross government secrecy and how it enables policies that are quite detrimental to the planet.