The leakers: Snowden and Gates

As a journalist who leans instinctively toward public disclosure and open debate, I’ve perched precariously on the fence when it comes to the fate of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Snowden – who remains a fugitive from American justice in Russia – cracked open a national, and in many ways a global, debate over government spying and the ways that our federal intelligence agencies are monitoring U.S. citizens.

He single-handedly sparked the kind of conversation that open, free societies need to have on a regular basis, especially in times of war, about the measures we’re willing to take to protect ourselves.

How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice? How much of our privacy will we hand over to secret courts and unnamed government bureaucrats?

How effective, really, are the oversight committees and judicial restraints on the proliferating espionage agencies, from the NSA to the Central Intelligence Agency to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the many municipal police departments that now operate intelligence programs?

Snowden blew that whole series of questions wide open.

But I still think it’s important to acknowledge that in a time of war – and I do think that Islamic radicals remain a serious threat to the U.S. and our security – giving up national defense secrets, even for the best possible reasons, can amount to an act of treason.

Some observers have pointed out that Mr. Snowden is really two things at once, a hero who shined a powerful light on our own government’s secret monitoring of its citizens, and a traitor whose actions may have put our nation at increased risk.

I think that’s fair. But the conversation about Snowden’s fate has been further complicated this week by another set of leaks, these offered up by none other than former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Secretary Gates’ new tell-all book reveals the inner workings of President Barack Obama’s White House when it came to framing national security issues and the war in Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates doesn’t just tip the public to intelligence gathering techniques and the clandestine workings of the NSA. He allows the world to pry into the secret deliberations of our top military leaders, our commander in chief, revealing Mr. Obama’s hidden doubts and reservations.

“As I sat there,” Secretary Gates recounts, describing a closed-door meeting with Mr. Obama, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand (Afghanistan President Hamid) Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

This is, arguably, important information for the public to have, and I think Secretary Gates should probably be free to disclose it. Again, in a free society, we should know what our president’s motivations are, even in times of conflict.

But Secretary Gates cracked open the inner workings of our president’s war policy in Afghanistan – revealing private information that will, plausibly, hearten our enemies.

He also offered up controversial information about Mr. Obama’s relationship with a foreign leader, Mr. Karzai, at a time when we still have more than 20,000 U.S. service members in harm’s way in that country.

Secretary Gates disclosed deep divisions between the military and civilian leadership within the administration and the Pentagon. He also suggested that our troops continue to die in Afghanistan for a cause in which Mr. Obama no longer believes.

Imagine a former defense secretary offering up similar information about a commander in chief’s secret deliberations during World War II or Korea or Vietnam while our troops were still in harms way in those conflicts.

It is nearly inconceivable.

Again, because of my predilection toward transparency, I think both men should be respected for having the courage to take the extraordinary step of pulling back the curtain on troubling aspects of America’s war on terror.

Is it possible that their revelations will do some harm to our security and result in some loss of life? Sadly, yes.

But in a free society, that’s what patriots fight and die for – championing freedom not only from foreign threats but from domestic power and tyranny.

Yet for Secretary Gates to be feted in Washington and invited on the Sunday talk shows for his honesty and outspokenness, while Mr. Snowden is forced to live as a fugitive?

That apparent double standard opens the door to new and even more troubling questions about how we plan to carry on this conversation about freedom, national security and transparency.

Brian Mann lives in Saranac Lake and is the Adirondack bureau chief for NCPR.