Our Future is in the Hands of Leakers
The true meaning of the old adage “information is power,” and a turning point for the American empire.
In 2017, author and Washington Post columnist Malcolm Harris published one of the most underrated articles I’ve ever read, posing the question “Why do millennials keep leaking government secrets?”
In his analysis (which is well worth the read), Harris explains the circumstances that have led to leaks of damaging, secret documents becoming more commonplace in the information age.
He also argues that there are generational traits which make millennials especially prone to engage in whistleblowing, particularly our lack of institutional loyalty and strong desire to hold the powerful accountable.
Summing up his thesis with a classic piece of wisdom from The Prince, Harris writes “One of the reasons Machiavelli advised against using mercenaries is that it’s a no-win situation: Either they’re not competent, or if they are, they’ll substitute their own judgment and goals for their leader’s.”
This centuries-old observation can be used to explain every major leak that has affected politics in the United States over the past decade, from the DoD documents Chelsea Manning released through Wikileaks in 2010 to Edward Snowden’s 2013 dump of NSA files to multiple journalists, and Reality Winner’s 2017 leak of an NSA document describing Russian attempts to access local election systems.
Each leak was carried out by a millennial working for the government in some capacity, and they all revealed shocking information. Manning’s leak skyrocketed to the top of headlines when Wikileaks released a video dubbed “collateral murder,” which shows the view from an Apache helicopter as a U.S. airstrike kills two Reuters journalists in Iraq.
Reuters had previously tried to obtain footage of the strike through Freedom of Information Act requests, with no success.
Snowden’s leak was famous for revealing the clandestine global surveillance operation being run by the NSA, which not only targets millions of U.S. citizens domestically but included at least dozens of foreign leaders, many of whom are allies such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Winner’s leak, while infinitely smaller in scope and size than Manning and Snowden’s, was narrowly focused enough to garner significant media attention and earn the 25-year-old federal contractor a charge under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The NSA document she leaked to The Intercept (a news outlet founded by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the first two journalists Snowden contacted in 2012 and 2013) contained classified information about a Russian cyberattack on a voting software supplier and over 100 phishing emails sent to local elections officials days before the Presidential election.
If the Trump administration successfully makes the case for Winner’s guilt, she’ll become the 51st person convicted under the act since its passage a century ago.
Of course, whether or not Winner is prosecuted is irrelevant in the big picture — she was hardly the first person to leak information damaging to our institutions, and it’s unlikely she’ll be the last.
As more millennials continue to enter the workforce and rise to new positions that offer them greater access to information, our tendency to leak will only lead to an increased frequency of the practice.
Enough of us clearly have no qualms or intellectual hang-ups about becoming martyrs for what we believe in to ensure that the leaks won’t stop anytime soon.
Given the power to disrupt demonstrated by the three lone actors Manning, Snowden, and Winner, we can expect this to be remembered as the beginning of an era in which our generation pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of U.S. power structures.
Meanwhile, our leaders will be stuck pleading that we “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
This seems to create three possible outcomes, in which the U.S. either collapses due to an obliteration of trust in our institutions, becomes a global leader in pushing for transparency and offering protection to whistleblowers, or slides into authoritarianism to protect the ability of those in power to operate in secrecy.
Our President has already made it more than clear which option he prefers, although it’s unlikely he’ll be able to carry out his agenda without executing a total authoritarian takeover of the U.S. media.
Of course, this plays right into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy of siding with Wikileaks, offering asylum to Snowden, and using the cyber-resources at his disposal to disrupt democracy in the U.S.
While Putin sits back and watches America’s institutions burn, he remains insulated from any concerns of damaging leaks given the total control the Kremlin maintains over Russian media.
Ultimately, the real test for the world will be whether, at a time when a barrage of shocking revelations is forcing us to confront the brutal realities about the institutions we depend on, we’ll be able to work together and peacefully reorganize ourselves into new, more transparent methods of governing ourselves.