The United States is once again caught up in a case of leaked, secret information.
After the WikiLeaks disclosure of diplomatic messages has come the revelation that the National Security Agency collects telephone and Internet data.
Both leaks publicize government actions that people supposedly could find both wrong and invasive. The leakers clearly want to put a stop to what the government is doing by making its operations public and hence worthless.
The suddenly revealed material has been kept secret for reasons ranging from delicate diplomatic relations, involving frank comments about other countries, to intelligence gathering on adversaries, including terrorists.
The first step in bringing secret government activities into public view is revealing them to unauthorized recipients — the leak itself. The second is the publication of the information by the media.
Revealing the information may result in allowing enemies to avoid surveillance, putting American sources in mortal danger or compromising relationships with other countries.
Counterbalancing these concerns is the need for an open government, operating in a democracy, to enable its citizens to be aware of the actions it takes on their behalf, so they may decide what limits to impose on it.
The leakers — Army Pvt. Bradley Manning in the case of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden in the case of NSA surveillance — concluded that unless they revealed secrets to which they had access, improper government actions would continue without the public knowing.
The leakers knowingly broke the law and the rules on secrecy they had previously agreed to respect.
With the leaked data in hand, the media distributed the information from these sources, pursuing its responsibility in open societies to inform the public.
Faced with the choice between suppressing news and publishing it, the media has done its job and probably broken no law.
Some people believe that Manning and Snowden should not be punished for their actions, because they are serving high and worthy purposes, not simply leaking to gain sensational headlines for themselves.
When people knowingly break the law to serve the public interest, they act in a long tradition. It began 165 years ago in Massachusetts.
Henry David Thoreau, a Concord school teacher, spent a night in jail for refusal to pay a tax. In 1848, he laid out his view “On Civil Disobedience.”
Thoreau advocated nonviolent opposition to government. He accepted that if a person broke the law, he or she would be punished. If “one honest man” freed his slaves and went to jail, “it would be the abolition of slavery in America,” he wrote.
A couple of men, acknowledging Thoreau’s inspiration, disobeyed the law, went to jail and changed their countries. India’s Mahatma Gandhi and America’s Martin Luther King Jr. accepted that their peaceful resistance to colonialism and racism was worth a prison term.
Snowden, following the lead of WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, has enlisted the help of countries that would like to embarrass and harass the United States. To avoid the consequences of his actions, he compounds them with disloyalty.
China, Russia and even little Ecuador have been given the chance to pull Uncle Sam’s beard, thanks to Snowden. Whatever the merits of his cause, he has not only released secrets, but harmed his country’s position in the world.
The federal government itself, no matter its intentions, must take some responsibility for all that has happened. One can only wonder how a lowly, new Army private and a recently-hired contract employee could gain access so readily to vital national secrets.
In fact, the question arises whether the drive to reduce the size of government, partly accomplished by assigning essential tasks to contractors such as Snowden’s employer, makes sense or even really saves money.
One positive side effect of the leaks could be that government officials may be more careful about what they communicate in writing. Email and social media may have made messaging so easy that people may write carelessly before they think.
Without going into details about the content of communications or surveillance methods, the president and Congress could engage in a discussion of just what kind of operations are appropriate in a democratic society. And they could set stricter rules limiting who has access to secret information.
If the government had been more forthright on the nature of what it felt necessary to do, without going into details, and more willing to let citizens know how secret programs are controlled, there might be fewer sensational leaks.
Wrapping special courts and Congress in the same secrecy as the programs they supposedly control may be what creates opportunities for leakers.