Blown Whistle

3 minute read
Michael Scherer

Final arguments in the court-martial of Bradley Manning ended with a disagreement over a selfie–a digital photograph the young Army private had taken of himself in a mirror, smiling while wearing makeup and a bra, just days after releasing classified material to WikiLeaks.

Prosecutors claimed that the smile showed Manning’s malice and his intent to use his position as an intelligence analyst in Iraq to harm the U.S. “This is a gleeful, grinning PFC Manning,” said Major Ashden Fein. The defense countered that the photo showed an anguished man with gender-identification issues, struggling in a military that did not accept him. “Just maybe that person is smiling because he’s able to be himself at that moment,” said David Coombs, Manning’s attorney.

Motivation mattered because the U.S. government was trying to throw the book at Manning. It charged him not only with stealing military secrets but also with violating the Espionage Act and aiding the enemy when he pulled off the largest unauthorized release of classified documents in U.S. history. The last charge never stuck. But after the verdict was read July 30, Manning had been convicted of enough charges to face a maximum sentence of 136 years in prison, the details of which will be decided in coming weeks.

For Edward Snowden, the intelligence analyst still hiding in a Russian airport, the message was a reminder that American juries–civilian or military–rarely show leakers much quarter. “His conviction should stand as an example to those who are tempted to violate a sacred public trust,” Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced after the verdict.

Left unanswered is whether this new generation of data leakers will be dissuaded. In 2009, months before his first leak, Manning downloaded a classified document laying out the Army’s counterintelligence strategy for combatting WikiLeaks. The plan amounted to this: find, expose and prosecute the leakers to “deter others from taking similar actions.” But Manning was not deterred. After reading those words, he stole the document and sent it to WikiLeaks, which promptly published it. Years later, even after the harsh conditions of Manning’s solitary confinement while awaiting trial were known, Snowden followed in his footsteps, downloading a trove of U.S. secrets and making them public.

Of course, there is much more to the Obama Administration’s strategy of plugging the leaks than just prosecution. “Insider threats remain the top counterintelligence challenge to our community,” says Robert Bryant, the national counterintelligence executive. In 2012, even before Snowden, polygraph tests for security clearances began asking prospective employees about intentional leaks, and new trip-wire policies have been installed on the databases that Manning drew from without detection. President Obama has also created a new insider-threat policy that encourages investigations whenever employees suspect their peers of suspicious behavior.

The motivations of Manning and Snowden fall under the Ideology/Identification subset of the FBI’s insider-threat category: “a desire to help an ‘underdog’ or a particular cause.” That cause is open government, and to its champions, Manning and Snowden are heroes whose leaks are a public service. What matters next may have less to do with the punishment that is meted out than with how many people with security clearances decide to follow in their footsteps.

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