But how does Manning stack up in the taxonomy of recent spillers of national-security secrets?
It’s a difficult case, says Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, because the sheer volume of Manning’s leaks (more than 700,000 pages of classified documents, plus videos) encompasses such varied material. He says the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, which shows U.S. forces gunning down unarmed civilians in Afghanistan in 2007, counts as a “public service,” while the disclosure of hundreds of names of people working with U.S. and Afghan forces was “reckless.”
“When you’re leaking hundreds of thousands of cables and logs of [military] interactions with civilians, you’re leaking a lot of names of people who are going to be put at real risk,” he says.
Still, he says that the government routinely marks material as classified that doesn’t need to be and that the government tends to overreact to leaks. And many see a sort of sister issue in the acts of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who disclosed the government’s massive phone surveillance program to the Guardian and The Washington Post and then fled abroad.
As high-profile as these cases are, how many can even remember the name of Samuel Loring Morison?
He’s the only other government employee to have been convicted of espionage for giving classified documents to the media. In 1985, Morison gave a British military publication, Jane’s Defence Weekly, classified pictures of Soviet military assets. Convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, he was pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2001.
There was a big to-do, but it didn’t last, and that’s part of the issue with the Manning case, several national security experts say. The case’s intense media coverage gives an inflated image to what might not turn out to be all that dramatic in terms of actual damage to national security. By contrast, the case of Robert P. Hanssen, the FBI agent turned KGB informer, was deadly serious but did not reverberate for several years in daily news reports.
“The Hanssen case played out largely in private because he pleaded guilty, there was no trial and the actions occurred before the Internet era,” says David A. Vise, author of “The Bureau and the Mole: The Unmasking of Robert Philip Hanssen, the Most Dangerous Double Agent in FBI History” and a former Washington Post reporter.
Further, as Vise points out, reporting on the world of spies and double agents is difficult because the basis of that enterprise is secrecy and deception. The Manning case, with its immense number of documents and attendant First Amendment issues, was all about going public and the media’s role in holding the government to account.
“It plays into what the media does; and the media, of course, loves to report about the media,” Vise said.
So let’s look at two recent, much darker cases, in which such hot-button words and phrases as “traitor,” and “treason” and “worst national security breach” have been tossed around, to see how Manning compares with cold-blooded spies.
First, the man himself:
Manning, an intelligence analyst deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, became alarmed by what he saw as violent misconduct by U.S. soldiers and eventually turned over three-quarters of a million pages of classified information to WikiLeaks, which published some of them in 2010.
In addition to the disclosures mentioned above were at least 100 instances of cases dealing with Afghan informants, battlefield assessments from Afghanistan and Iraq, files on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and cables about the Middle East that his supporters say helped prompt the Arab Spring.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said Manning’s disclosures “have exposed war crimes, sparked revolutions and induced democratic reform.” Norman Solomon, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, wrote an op-ed in USA Todaypublished Wednesday that said he would deliver a petition of 100,000 signatures to the Nobel Committee saying Manning deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the darker side — all treachery and zero idealism — there’s Aldrich Ames. A CIA counterintelligence officer with a drinking problem and a taste for the high life, Ames made millions by selling secrets to the Soviet Union and then Russia in the 1980s and 1990s, enabling their security forces to execute at least 10 Russians who were secretly working for the United States. Arrested in 1994, he pleaded guilty almost immediately and was sentenced to life without parole.
Also in darkness: Hanssen, the supervisory special agent for the FBI who sold secrets to the Soviet Union and Russia for 22 years. The final report of the Justice Department’s Commission for the Review of FBI Security Programs said that “Hanssen turned over . . . an estimated twenty-six diskettes and 6,000 pages of classified information.” The information was penetrating — it included names of Soviet agents who had approached U.S. intelligence, and at least three of them were later executed.
Hanssen pleaded guilty to more than a dozen charges of espionage, apologized and was sentenced later that year to life in prison without parole.
“I could have been a devastating spy, I think,” Hanssen was quoted as saying in the report, “but I didn’t want to be a devastating spy. I wanted to get a little money and to get out of it.”
Plato Cacheris, the attorney who represented both Ames and Hanssen, sees stark differences. “Manning has different motivation,” he says. “Ames and Hanssen did what they did for financial reasons,” and besides, “they were dealing directly with our sworn enemy, and Manning is not necesarily in that category.” Still, he said, “I’m not sure they were more dangerous to national security.”