Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.
Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’s David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.
Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.
Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush’s administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.
Sometimes the index finger of government has no idea of what the thumb is up to. In 2007, Vice President Cheney went directly to Bush with his complaint about what he considered to be a damaging national security leak in a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “Whoever is leaking information like this to the press is doing a real disservice, Mr. President,” Cheney said. Later, Bush’s national security adviser paid a visit to Cheney to explain that Bush, um, had authorized him to make the leak to Ignatius.