In his office safe at RAND sat a 7,000-page document that went into lengthy and embarrassing detail of how the U.S. military was mired in Vietnam. Ellsberg decided to share the Pentagon Papers, as they were called, with the world. So he quietly snuck them out of his office, and with the help of a friend and a Xerox copy machine made duplicates.
The documents eventually landed in the newsroom of The New York Times, where they were published in 1971. For a public already souring on the Vietnam War, the release of the Pentagon Papers was a major turning point toward ending U.S. involvement.
About 40 years later, a U.S. Army private with little more than a high school education found himself in a similar situation. Stationed at a remote outpost in Iraq, Pfc. Bradley Manning had access to some of the U.S. government’s most highly sensitive documents, videos, diplomatic communications and war records from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The private had a significant advantage over Ellsberg. Manning was able to download the data onto flash-drives. Sharing the classified data with WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing secrets, was then relatively easy.
That act of sharing and the headlines it produced once WikiLeaks went public put Manning in very hot water. He was convicted Tuesday on 20 out of 22 charges brought against him by the U.S. government; he was spared the most serious charge of aiding the enemy. Still, Manning was looking at more than 100 years behind bars as his trial’s sentencing phase began Wednesday.
A debate will likely rage over how much time Manning should serve for his crimes. That’s a topic for another day, though we should add that all persons claiming the mantle of whistleblower would be wise to consider the fullest implications of their deeds before making secrets public.
Our point today concerns the rapid changes faced in our digitized world. Secrets are not stored as they once were. Access to them and the means of spreading them are simpler.
If Manning’s case isn’t enough, consider the secrets recently released by Edward Snowden, a high school dropout turned NSA contractor. The one skill that linked Manning and Snowden is proficiency with computers.
Times have changed. The job of copying 7,000 pages by hand on an overly large copy machine that had less power than your average smartphone is no longer necessary. Just a few keystrokes by a savvy computer user and the secrets are out.