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Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden: The Saga Continues

Posted by prof e on June 24, 2013

In this short list of famous leakers–Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden–each one has had to walk a delicate tightrope between  two, potentially,  very noble causes. On one hand is the exposure of wrong doing. On the other is the rule of law and the legal process designed to protect us from systemic corruption. Just like Nik Wallenda’s traverse of the Grand Canyon gorge, high-profile leakers or whistleblowers take great risks when they choose their course of action. And like a tight-rope walker, they are all alone once they leave the safety of terra firma.

The press and the government exist in a dynamic state of symbiosis: a tension between the public’s right to know, the government’s responsibility to provide security, and an individual’s right to some expectation of privacy. Individuals and organizations keep secrets because it gives them an advantage, or because it prevents others from knowing about, or exploiting, a weakness. When powerful individuals and entities (corporations, governmental agencies, organized groups) use their power for wrong…in ways that break ethical, moral, or legal rules and regulations, secrecy protects them from being outed and punished.

Enter the press. Journalists have long accepted the responsibility of shining a light into dark corners. Their job is to uncover and expose wrong-doing so that public pressure, or the law, can step in to correct the wrong. But journalists need help uncovering secrets. They often need someone on the inside, someone who has access to privately held information, who is willing to give that information to the journalist. Sometimes it is simply verbal information about where the investigative journalists should look, and what they should look for. Other times it involves documents or data that the insider gives to the journalists. The insider has the access, and the journalists has the investigative skills to collect and report on the facts that are relevant to the issue.

Daniel Ellsberg, “the most dangerous man in America“, became famous for releasing documents to the New York Times about the US Government’s failing policy in Vietnam. Public sentiment was already turning against the war when the Pentagon Papers threw gasoline on the fire. Ellsberg was prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917 but charges were later dismissed.

Bradley Manning, private first class in the US Army, was arrested for using his security clearance to download classified documents which he then released to WikiLeaks. Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of 22 charges earlier this year and his trial began just a few weeks ago. If convicted Manning could face life in prison.

Edward Snowden was an employee of the military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton when he downloaded, and leaked to the press, documents about the National Security Agency‘s surveillance program. According to the Guardian newspaper, “Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning.”  According to a recent poll by PEW Research, the public is split on whether the NSA leak serves the public interest. However, the public favors, by a significant margin, the criminal prosecution of Snowden. But age is a factor. Younger respondents are more likely to believe that the leak serves the public interest and are less likely to support prosecution.

The latest reports indicate that Snowden is making his way, with the help of Wikileaks legal team, to Ecuador where he will seek political asylum. The South China Morning Post is also reporting that Snowden took the job with Booz Allen Hamilton with the intent of collecting evidence of NSA spying. If that report is true, Snowden’s moral justification for his actions may be fatally damaged.

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One Response to “Ellsberg, Manning and Snowden: The Saga Continues”

  1. Samantha Baker said

    Every leader has a duty to serve the public. Sometimes this means that a person must risk their power in order to serve the public ethically. Daniel Ellsberg, Bradley Manning, and Edward Snowden were doing their civic duty by breaking the illusion that had been cast by the government. The government has its right to secrecy in the name of protection, but there is a line that is crossed when secrets are kept in order to sustain public support for someone or something. This is when people like Ellsberg and Snowden are needed to show the public what their democratic government is doing without their knowledge. In today’s society, people deserve to know where their tax dollars are going and to know that their nation is upholding a high standard of moral treatment. Turow mentions “the number of civilian ‘contractors’ working on U.S. and Iraqi bases” was kept from the general public for fear that people would object to the large amount of resources that was being devoted to the Iraq War (100-1). This type of incident is something the people of the United States should be aware of, and many times the only way they can gain this knowledge is from the cooperation of “whistleblowers” and journalists. While I agree we need people that are willing to share secrets that probably shouldn’t be kept, that does not mean those people should go on unpunished. They risk more than their own lives when they decide to make sensitive material public, and that is not a matter taken lightly. After all, Ellsberg, Manning, and Snowden are breaking the Freedom of Information Act by sharing national security information (Turow, 102). Citizens of the United States need people to point out our government’s mistakes in order for the democracy in this country to continue even if it means that some people are hurt in the process.

    Turow, Joseph. Media Today: An Introduction to Mass Communication. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

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