(film by Robert Greenwald)
When historians look back at Barack Obama’s time in the White House, two young men with similar profiles—Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden—may stand out as the most significant whistleblowers who challenged the administration’s counterterrorism policies involving government spying and widespread data collection.
Manning is a 25-year-old U.S. Army private who funneled thousands of classified diplomatic cables, incident reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Guantánamo detainee profiles, and, most significantly, video footage of a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad showing indiscriminate killing of civilians, to WikiLeaks for public disclosure.
Like Manning, Snowden, 29, spent time in the Army. Snowden was on track to become an elite soldier after being accepted into the Special Forces. That career path, though, was interrupted by a training accident that left him with two broken legs, ending his chance at becoming a commando for the American military.
Instead, Snowden went to work as a security guard for the National Security Agency (NSA) and then landed a job with the Central Intelligence Agency as a technical assistant working on IT security. He left the CIA in 2009 and then spent the next four years working for private contractors, including Booz Allen Hamilton, a leading government contractor that helps the federal government, especially the National Security Agency (NSA), with its secret intelligence work. It was during this time that Snowden learned how extensively the government was delving into Americans’ and others’ communications—and how much he disagreed with what was going on.
“I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant,” Snowden explained in a note that accompanied the first set of documents he leaked to the British newspaper The Guardian.
He also said he was willing to “sacrifice” his “very comfortable life” (family, girlfriend, a high-paying job) “because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.” He added, “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them…. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”
This point was echoed by Manning, who said he exposed important military and diplomatic documents and videos to promote global dialog about U.S. foreign and military policy.
Manning, who has already pled guilty to several counts of unauthorized release and distribution of classified material, is currently on trial for “aiding the enemy,” including one enemy whose name is classified.
Both Snowden and Manning could go down in history as two of America’s most important whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg, the former Department of Defense analyst who turned over the “Pentagon Papers,” a top-secret study of U.S. government decision-making during the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers in 1971. The difference is that although Ellsberg was initially charged with theft, conspiracy and violating the Espionage Act of 1917, all charges against him were eventually dropped, and he was widely regarded as a hero. Forty years later, the Obama administration and its allies have gone to great lengths to portray Manning as a traitor, and they appear to be gearing up to do the same with Snowden.
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