The NSA leaker Edward Snowden is being cast out of the gate in the terms that dog all whistleblowers. He is either traitor or hero, depending on how one feels about the surveillance programs he’s exposed. But his personal motivations are surely more complicated and byzantine than we now know, and go well beyond the dichotomy of state turncoat versus civil libertarian.

In any era there are myriad government personnel in possession of highly classified information, perturbed by what they perceive as the United States’s military and intelligence overreach. Yet we can count on one hand those who “go rogue.” Whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are such outliers, their decisions so context-dependent, that the facts of their lives speak volumes. (Ideologues of all stripes hate to acknowledge this, as if personality and individual motivation delegitimize the act itself.) 

Alex Gibney’s recently-released documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks is tremendously illuminating on the subject of the Wikileakers motivations, particularly in its examination of the life and mind of Bradley Manning, now in week three of his court-martial for disclosures to Wikileaks.

The portrait that emerges from biographies of Manning, as well as from We Steal Secrets, is of a young man whose personal demons and emotional distress may have been catalysts to disclosure equal to—perhaps even greater than—his stated goals of exposing military wrongdoing.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. One suspects additionally that there are few secret keepers in psychic agony. As Gibney’s film explores, Manning was tormented by one of the toughest secrets a young person can carry. He was deeply conflicted about his gender identity and appeared to suffer from gender dysphoria, the sense that one's biological sex is incongruent with self-perceived gender. It should be noted that Manning’s gender dysphoria was but one distinguishing factor—he has been described as emotionally volatile, highly intelligent and of short stature, a difficult set of characteristics for any underling in a regimented, top-down military environment.

It is far easier to keep secrets of state than secrets of the heart. When the two become conflated, beware. Manning needed to air the combat footage that haunted him, such as the “Collateral Murder” Apache helicopter attack video, but equally he needed to air his emotional torment. Multiple secrets are, for most people, multiply difficult to contain. So painful were Manning’s personal struggles that the magnitude of his military transgression (and the consequences he faced) may have felt miniscule in comparison.

Whistleblowing is, to be sure, an ethical and moral calculus, but to be a whistleblower one must hold a high-stakes secret, and those come with emotional baggage that has its own sway on decision making.

To be in possession of vital national security intelligence is to court grandiosity, perhaps especially in a young, solitary man who does not have an allegiance to the institutions that employ him. (David Brooks has written cogently about this possibility). As a keeper of classified information you are a member of an elite guard, yet membership is contingent on silence. If you become troubled by the secrets you carry, then the knowledge you once coveted is poisonous. Most people opt simply to remove themselves from the path of information. It is only a very few who choose to move the information, rather than themselves. To say that they are acting heroically—or nefariously—in so doing is to overlook the possibility of personal, idiosyncratic, emotional drivers. We’ll never know exactly why Manning took such drastic action. But as We Steal Secrets makes clear, the answer is overdetermined: rage at his immediate supervisors churned alongside outrage at the atrocities he witnessed; the desire for public transparency sat alongside the juvenile urge for infamy. After all, he couldn’t resist bragging about his leaks to Adrian Lamo, who was then himself saddled with the whistleblower’s dilemma of disclosure.

The role of grandiosity in Wikileaks’ evolution and devolution is well-documented. One of the revelations in We Steal Secrets is the degree to which Manning’s and Assange’s sexual desires (and, for Manning, sexual vulnerability) contributed as well. Manning fatefully reached out to Lamo in part because Lamo identifed himself as bisexual. If the film’s implications are correct, then Wikileaks’s demise was drastically accelerated by Assange’s rock star sexual antics, specifically his decision to have unprotected intercourse by tearing a condom, resulting in legal troubles and paranoid self-imposed exile that was priapic rather than political in genesis. (You could say that WikiLeaks was essentially felled by "RubberLeaks.")

Manning and Assange were bright hackers with dark edges. It may be years before we know what fully motivated the libertarian-leaning Snowden, whose premeditated global hopscotching at first glance evinces the calculation of a chess grandmaster, especially in comparison to Bradley Manning’s impulsive, agitated show of cards. For Snowden, as for Manning, the journey to whistleblowing was probably far more convoluted and tormented than any public statement he could possibly make on the topic, at least at this juncture. A whistleblower may know the secrets of others, but—the case for all of us—his own motivations remain occluded from self-discovery.

 Teaser Photo Credit: The Guardian-WorldCrunch

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