“Three may keep a secret if two are dead.” Benjamin Franklin penned these words and published them in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1735, 41 years before the United States gained independence. Now, the U.S. government still struggles with keeping information secret, particularly when individuals become uncomfortable with government procedure and leak sensitive information to the press. These “whistleblowers,” such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning—whose prison sentence was shortened by former President Obama last week—are often the subject of hot debate.
Whenever I hear about whistleblowers, it confirms my belief that there are enough people employed by the government that no major unethical action will go unreported. This is why I cannot believe theories that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by Bush’s administration in order to justify an overseas war, and that evidence has been destroyed to cover up Bush’s complicity. It would take many people to orchestrate something like that, which means lots of potential whistleblowers. A secret that big cannot be kept, according to Poor Richard.
In 2013, Edward Snowden exposed a major government secret: that the National Security Agency, under the Patriot Act, was engaging in mass surveillance of United States citizens. Snowden provided The Guardian and The Washington Post with over 9,000 documents of classified information, then fled to Russia in search of political asylum. He has been charged with two violations of the Espionage Act. Barack Obama commented, “Our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”
In general, Obama’s administration has cracked down on whistleblowers, prosecuting more than all past presidencies combined. Last week, however, Obama chose to commute Chelsea Manning’s 35-year-sentence, reducing it to seven years instead, which means she will be released on May 17 of this year. She was one of 273 individuals granted clemency by Obama during his last week in office. In his final press conference, Obama remarked, “The sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received.” In fact, Manning has already served a longer prison sentence than any other U.S. whistleblower. Obama further explained his reasons for commuting her sentence, stating that Manning sought due process in court, instead of fleeing the country like Snowden did three years later.
Manning initially claimed that she sought to spark debate on the United States’ global actions, but later recanted her statement and admitted that she had been dealing with many issues at the time that she released documents to WikiLeaks. She was convicted in 2010 of 17 charges—originally 22—and sentenced to 35 years at Fort Leavenworth’s U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. Many criticized the overly long sentence at the maximum-security prison. Though Manning is responsible for the largest information leak in U.S. history, does that justify a sentence that is half a human’s lifespan? Then again, the information Manning released, which contained cables, reports and videos detailing military and diplomatic dealings across the globe, had potential to be used against the U.S. and put American lives in danger. Yet, no direct correlation has been made between Manning’s whistleblowing and any American deaths, though some attribute the Arab Spring of December 2010 to her release of files earlier that year.
There is no clean-cut way to appraise the actions of whistleblowers. Chelsea Manning’s actions put the country at risk, but also opened a discussion about the nation’s military policies and brought WikiLeaks to prominence. Some people believe there are better channels through which to raise these issues to light. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, believes Obama’s ulterior motive in granting Manning clemency was to get Assange extradited, due to Assange’s claim that he would give himself up if Manning were pardoned. Senator Bernie Sanders said in 2013 (regarding Snowden) that the debate shouldn’t be about whistleblowers, but “about the gnawing questions his actions raised from the shadows.” I agree with Sanders, even if I question at times the appropriateness of leaking classified information. Whistleblowing is a complicated topic, but I value any opportunity to discuss problems in this country, regardless of how we learn about them.