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Whistle-Blowers in Limbo, Neither Hero Nor Traitor

August 1, 2013

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Even as Americans expressed increasing concerns about government intrusions into their life in a recently released Pew Research Center study, they have hardly embraced those who decide to take matters into their own hands.

Leakers, often lionized by members of the press, face an indifferent and sometimes antagonistic public.

On Tuesday, when Pfc. Bradley Manning was acquitted of aiding the enemy and convicted of six counts of violating the Espionage Act, a few dozen protesters showed up on his behalf. There has been an outcry from civil libertarians and privacy advocates, but in general, his decision to unilaterally release hundreds of thousands of sensitive documents did not make him a folk hero or a cause célèbre in the broader culture.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency employee, also released a trove of documents, including ones revealed on Wednesday in The Guardian that suggested that security analysts are able to search through e-mails, chats and browsing history without judicial authorization. Even though many people are glad to learn that, Mr. Snowden remains very much on his own in the Moscow airport — stateless, isolated and frozen in place for the time being.

In some respects, Mr. Snowden and Private Manning were performing a quintessentially American act: lone individuals taking on larger forces. But whistle-blowing has always been fraught with peril; one person’s heroic crusade is another’s betrayal of loyalty. In the case of both Mr. Snowden and Private Manning, each became an army of one, reasoning that there was a moral imperative to rendering secrets visible, acting on behalf of a public that he believed deserved to know more. But some Americans don’t seem ready to embrace this version of informational cowboy.

“Who is he to decide?” suggested a cabdriver in New York on Tuesday, speaking of Private Manning. He could have been speaking of Mr. Snowden as well.

In the view of advocates of civil liberties, both men performed acts of supreme self-sacrifice, but there is an unavoidable appearance of self-aggrandizement as well. We have been treated to hundreds of images of Mr. Snowden and Private Manning.

“Whistle-blowers they are not. These are essentially little people with bloated egos and sense of self-importance,” suggested one reader in comments that appeared with The New York Times’s article about Private Manning’s conviction.

Part of the reason that both men have gotten so much attention is that the Web has made the gathering and dissemination of large amounts of information much easier than it was in the past. Rather than slipping an envelope under a door, many of today’s leakers operate using hard drives jammed with millions of documents. It is far easier to do much more damage, something both the government and the public are struggling to come to terms with.

“The more they reveal, the greater the threat against them,” said Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, referring to large-scale whistle-blowers. Read more in the New York Times.

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