The U.S. government seems outraged that people are leaking classified materials about its less attractive behavior. It certainly acts that way: three years ago, after Chelsea Manning, an army private then known as Bradley Manning, turned over hundreds of thousands of classified cables to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, U.S. authorities imprisoned the soldier under conditions that the UN special rapporteur on torture deemed cruel and inhumane. The Senate’s top Republican, Mitch McConnell, appearing on Meet the Press shortly thereafter, called WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, “a high-tech terrorist.”
More recently, following the disclosures about U.S. spying programs by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency analyst, U.S. officials spent a great deal of diplomatic capital trying to convince other countries to deny Snowden refuge. And U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a long-anticipated summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he refused to comply.
Despite such efforts, however, the U.S. establishment has often struggled to explain exactly why these leakers pose such an enormous threat. Indeed, nothing in the Manning and Snowden leaks should have shocked those who were paying attention. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who dissented from the WikiLeaks panic, suggested as much when he told reporters in 2010 that the leaked information had had only a “fairly modest” impact and had not compromised intelligence sources or methods. Snowden has most certainly compromised sources and methods, but he has revealed nothing that was really unexpected. Before his disclosures, most experts already assumed that the United States conducted cyberattacks against China, bugged European institutions, and monitored global Internet communications. Even his most explosive revelation -- that the United States and the United Kingdom have compromised key communications software and encryption systems designed to protect online privacy and security -- merely confirmed what knowledgeable observers have long suspected.
The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to