BALTIMORE — A young man comes to Maryland, takes some community college classes, uses his computer skills to get a job in which he gains a security clearance.
Still in his 20s, he finds information about government activity that troubles him. He decides to share it with the world.
In its broad outlines, the case of Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old intelligence contractor who last week revealed the existence of two top secret National Security Agency eavesdropping programs, hews closely to the contours set by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, the 25-year-old soldier now being court-martialed at Fort Meade, Md., for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified documents.
Both say they wanted to inform citizens of actions the government has taken in their name, in the hope of provoking a public debate. Both admit they disclosed classified materials, which is against the law. Snowden has called Manning “a classic whistle-blower” who was “inspired by the public good.” Manning’s supporters say Snowden, too, acted in the public interest.
Manning, whose court-martial on charges including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act resumed Monday, could be sentenced to life in prison. Snowden, now holed up in Hong Kong, is likely to face extradition to the United States. He says he expects “nothing good” to happen to him.
It’s not clear whether Snowden saw Manning as a model, whether the similarities in their cases suggest a profile for future leakers, or what lessons the government might take from their actions.
“It’s hard to know whether or not two people make a pattern,” said Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “But something we surely need to be alert to is the fact that we have two people in roughly parallel cases who have made roughly parallel decisions.”
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who teaches a course called “Secrecy and Whistleblowing,” says both young men clearly had broad access to classified information.
“And they became concerned about whether that information included evidence of wrongdoing,” Clark said.
Christopher Pyle, a former Army intelligence officer whose 1970 disclosure of Army spying on anti-war activists was part of a raft of Vietnam-era revelations that included the Pentagon Papers, wonders whether the nation has reached a “tipping point.”
“We reached a tipping point in 1970,” said Pyle, now a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “That was a moment in American history when people had become highly skeptical of government … particularly young people. We may be reaching that point again. I certainly hope so.”
In an online essay Monday, Pyle called Snowden “a profile in courage.”
Snowden, who was employed by NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, outed himself on Sunday as the source of the secret documents reported last week by the Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post. The documents showed that the agency was collecting data on telephone calls in the United States and monitoring the Internet usage of foreigners. Booz Allen Hamilton announced Tuesday it had fired Snowden.
Obama administration officials and lawmakers of both parties have deplored the leaks. They say the programs were approved by a secret federal court and are conducted under the law.
Snowden, who served briefly in the Army and later worked as a technical assistant to the CIA, told the Guardian his “sole motive” in revealing the eavesdropping programs was “to inform the public as to that which was done in their name and that which is done against them.”
“You see things that may be disturbing,” he said. “When you see everything, you realize that some of these things are abusive. The awareness of wrongdoing builds up.”
Snowden, who was born in North Carolina, moved to Maryland with his family in 1999 and later attended Anne Arundel Community College. Manning, a native of Oklahoma, lived for a time with an aunt in Potomac. He studied at Montgomery College.
There are key differences between Snowden’s actions and Manning’s. Manning has acknowledged giving hundreds of thousands of classified documents — including diplomatic cables, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs and video footage of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians in Baghdad — to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
“Manning seems to have engaged in an indiscriminate data dump,” said Washington University’s Clark. “That is not what we have with Snowden.”
Snowden is believed to have provided only a few documents to the Guardian and the Post.
Manning was not a participant in any of the actions recorded in the documents he disclosed, which date back as far as 1966. Snowden appears to have been involved in the programs he revealed.
“If I wanted to see your emails or your wife’s phone, all I have to do is use intercepts,” he told the Guardian. “I can get your emails, passwords, phone records, credit cards.”
Clark says this difference may be important.
“The moral case for engaging in whistle-blowing may be different whether you are a witness to wrongdoing or whether you believe you may have participated in wrongdoing,” she said.
Prosecutors say Manning attempted to conceal his leak. He was arrested after a hacker to whom he had confided his actions went to the FBI.
Snowden, in contrast, fled from his workplace in Hawaii to Hong Kong, where he asked the Guardian to reveal his identity — and, in a video interview with the newspaper, began his defense.