Glenn Greenwald: Why Americans Prefer Edward Snowden to Chelsea Manning

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Two empty chairs carrying the names of whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning sit onstage in 2014 during the convention of the Pirate Party in Bochum, Germany. Glenn Greenwald announced a matching fund to cover Manning's legal costs; he has pledged $10,000 of his own money and $50,000 from the First Look Media’s Press Freedom Litigation Fund. Caroline Seidel/EPA

Nearly a year after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed top-secret details about the NSA's vast surveillance programs, the American public came out overwhelmingly in his favor. A poll commissioned by cloud storage service Tresorit in June 2014 found that 55 percent believed he did the right thing, while 29 percent did not.

That support stands in stark contrast to American public opinion of another famous (or infamous) leak—the one by Chelsea Manning, the former private first class sentenced to 35 years in prison for handing over sensitive government documents to WikiLeaks. A Rasmussen poll conducted three years after her disclosures found 52 percent of Americans think she is a traitor, while 17 percent view her as a heroic whistleblower. 

Today, Manning’s supporters—including Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who helped break the Snowden story—are rushing to raise money for Manning's costly appeal. Greenwald recently donated $10,000 to her legal defense fund, and over the course of two days last week, Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, with the help of First Look Media, Greenwald’s employer, raised more than $125,000.

But that won’t cover the cost of her defense. Manning will still need to raise tens of thousands more dollars to carry the case through oral arguments at the Army Court of Appeals and possibly beyond. (If successful, the Army could grant Manning a new trial or reduce her sentence, among other possible outcomes.) “I don’t know how much it will be,” says Nancy Hollander, lead counsel for Manning's legal defense team. “I hope we can do it for a couple hundred thousand.”

Manning, 27, currently sits in a maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. In 2013, she was found guilty of 20 counts, six of them under the Espionage Act, and handed the longest prison sentence of any government leaker in U.S. history. Among other things, her disclosures showed that the U.S. grossly downplayed the number of civilian casualties in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and covered up prisoner abuse in those countries. The leak also contained files on prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and hundreds of thousands of private communications between the U.S. and its allies, which revealed that the nations’ private stances sometimes contradicted their public ones.

For better or worse, some credit the leaks with helping to spark the Arab Spring and derailing U.S. attempts to extend its stay in Iraq. Government officials have condemned Manning, claiming the disclosures, particularly the unredacted names of everyone from activists to informants, put thousands of lives in danger. But at a time when the U.S. government is increasingly conducting business in secret, supporters see her move as necessary. "If this case stands...anyone who ever leaks a single page of classified information runs the risk of prosecution under the Espionage Act,” says Hollander. “That act was meant to punish spies and saboteurs, people who act against the United States. It was never meant to prosecute whistleblowers, and this case presents a disastrous precedent that needs to be overturned.”

To understand more about that precedent, as well as why Americans seem to have a more favorable opinion of Snowden than Manning, Newsweek spoke to Greenwald by phone last week. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

Why has it been so hard to raise money for Manning in your view?
I think the big problem is that it’s really hard to humanize Chelsea Manning because she basically has been utterly silenced from the time she was arrested until today. She’s not allowed to talk to the media. She was put in this pretrial detention, where she was basically in this black hole, and so there’s been no ability on her part to make public appeals or really to just make her case about why she did what she did or anything like that. So it’s been hard to establish a connection between her and the public, and that is crucial to moving people to donate money in a world where there’s too many causes—more than you could possibly support.... That has been a crucial difference between Manning and Snowden. Snowden has been able to be his own public voice, whereas Manning hasn’t.

Does the information she leaked have anything to do with the disconnect?
I think there was a broader base for what Snowden did in the U.S. because the biggest and first story we did was one about NSA spying on Americans, which meant that there was a lot of support across the ideological spectrum in both parties for those disclosures. Manning’s leaks were more along the lines of, “Here’s the bad thing the U.S. has been doing to other countries in the world,” and so it didn’t have that level of support. But at the same time, things like the collateral murder video (that first video of the helicopter attack on the civilians and Reuters journalists in Baghdad), even some of the disclosures from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have been acknowledged as pretty important by a lot of people, including in the U.S. I just think that Manning has been this much more enigmatic figure because she’s been so concealed. But I think the WikiLeaks disclosures have also been demonized in a way that the Snowden leaks haven’t been.

What about the aftermath of the leaks?
I think one big thing is Manning is now a convict. She’s been convicted, and she’s a prisoner, and Snowden isn’t. So it gives us the feeling that Manning has been proved to have committed serious crimes. Whereas Snowden, when you see him, he’s not wearing an orange jumpsuit with handcuffs in the courtroom. He’s wearing a sports jacket and making appearances and giving speeches. I think that is part of it.

The reality is, the Manning leaks—Bill Keller himself, when he was at The New York Times...he had huge conflicts with WikiLeaks, and he hated Julian Assange. But he even said that those leaks helped to spark the Arab Spring. And there is also a good argument to make that Manning’s leaks prevented the continuation of the Iraq War.... Obama was trying to negotiate an agreement with the Maliki government to keep forces in Iraq and wanted immunity for U.S. troops, and part of the WikiLeaks disclosures from the Iraq War logs were about these horrific crimes committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.... And it basically prevented [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] from agreeing to what Obama was demanding, and it forced the troops out. It kind of ended the Iraq War. So there were good effects to the Manning disclosures. I think they just got demonized by the combination of the attacks on WikiLeaks and the fact she wasn’t able to defend them.

Does the American public find Manning less relatable because she is a transgender woman?
Definitely. Even before she announced that she was a transgender woman, which she did basically after her trial concluded, there were [these] really terrible articles all but stating that the reason she did the leaking wasn’t out of principle or anything like that but because she was struggling with gender issues and making her seem mentally and emotionally unbalanced. The only thing people did end up knowing about Manning personally, because she wasn’t heard from, was that she had these issues of sexuality and gender that make a lot of people uncomfortable—almost like they don’t want to be associated with it.

That’s another big thing as well: Manning didn’t come out as the source of these leaks. She was discovered and then arrested, whereas Snowden boldly came out before he was discovered and said, "I was the one who did it, and here’s why." And I worked a lot on the Manning and WikiLeaks story, and I tried to learn some of the lessons from that when we did Snowden, and one of the things I knew was making him relatable as a human being was going to go a long way in determining how these disclosures were perceived. And yeah, I think the way Manning was demonized on those gender issues, and just the fact that she is transgender, even though there is this taboo about speaking about it too negatively now—two years ago, it wasn't the case, and I still think people are very uncomfortable with it. They just kind of want to stay away from it.

What are your thoughts on Manning going through WikiLeaks?
I think people forget the extent to which WikiLeaks actually did some pretty traditional journalism with these leaks. They redacted a bunch of documents; they actually went to the State Department and asked for help getting the State Department’s advice about which documents should and shouldn’t be disclosed. And the State Department refused to do it, but they did ask. And then they worked with the Guardian and The New York Times and other traditional media outlets from around the world in order to publish these documents. Although all the documents wound up getting leaked through a series of bad kind of coincidences and mistakes, the way the documents got reported wasn’t all that different from the way we did it with Snowden, or the way The Washington Post did. But I think that she went to WikiLeaks for the same reason that Snowden purposefully avoided The New York Times and came to me and Laura instead: There was a perception that these other media outlets would do more to suppress this information than get it to the public, and she wanted to make sure it would get to the public, and she felt WikiLeaks would do that. I definitely think that choice is understandable and valid.

Spacing out your reporting on the Snowden leaks has defied the news cycle and kept him relevant. Would this have helped Manning, not going through WikiLeaks?
They did some spacing out.... First, they did the video, and then the Afghanistan War logs. Then they did the Iraq War logs, and then they did the diplomatic cables. But you’re right—they did this mass publishing of material at once instead of reporting it story by story. There are two different ways of doing it, and there are benefits to each. We’ve sort of been criticized of being the gatekeepers of the information, and that it has taken us too long to publish some of these stories, and that in some sense we are performing the same role as the NSA by keeping secrets, by not just taking what we have and shoving it all on the Internet. So there are pros and cons to it. We basically did what we did because this is how Snowden strategically thought it should be done. He wanted it reported story by story; he didn't want it just thrown up on the Internet. If he wanted that, he wouldn’t have needed me. He would have done that himself. And I do think that that was the right choice, and it has made a bigger impact and kept it in the public eye for longer and sort of immunized us from the kind of attacks that helped to demonize WikiLeaks, but I also see the benefits of doing it the WikiLeaks way. I don’t think when Manning sent the documents to WikiLeaks she had any kind of suggestions or preferences or advice or directions about how it should be published. It was really WikiLeaks’ decision.