The sale of the Washington Post has elicited a round of Watergate-era nostalgia. That should raise a question: why do two Post reporters get treated differently from somebody like Bradley Manning?
Woodward and Bernstein got the Watergate story because of Mark Felt—“Deep Throat”—an FBI associate director who’d been passed over for the top job and now passed along the information he wanted Woodward and Bernstein to have. The Watergate break-in and cover-up were no trivial matters—the attorney general of the United States, John Mitchell, had been directly involved, and President Nixon wanted to use the CIA to discourage the FBI from investigating. Maybe Felt was motivated by pique at how his own career had turned out. Or maybe he was motivated by a sense of justice and wanted to make the American public aware of corruption in high office, and Woodward and Bernstein were the indispensable means to that end. Whatever the case, he disclosed sensitive material from an ongoing investigation.
Felt hasn’t been lionized the way Woodward and Bernstein have long been, but they wouldn’t be household names—and legends to a generation of journalists—if it hadn’t been for him. Which brings us to Manning, recently convicted of leaking sensitive material to a website that subsequently (often through intermediaries) made the American public and the world aware of how the Iraq War was conducted and of the intricacies of U.S. diplomacy. Instead of a break-in and executive cover-up, the subject was war and the killing that it involves.
Manning is nowhere near as sophisticated—at manipulation or discrimination, you choose—as Mark Felt was. He unleashed a huge torrent of data, much of it (in the diplomatic cables) sensitive but innocuous. He and Felt both took matters into their own hands, however. Woodward and Bernstein acted as Felt’s conduits. So what’s the sense in lionizing them but not Manning? The differences matter; so does the similarity.
Watergate in retrospect was a remarkably bizarre and amoral saga, in which the likes of Nixon and Mitchell engaged in behavior that could only bring them to ruin, while the FBI man Felt—a guy up to his neck in COINTELPRO and who went to jail for his own “extralegal” activities—was no different from the figures he exposed. Bob Woodward, meanwhile, the more high-profile of the Washington Post‘s star duo, parlayed his fame into becoming (in Christopher Hitchens’s words) “stenographer of the stars.” Tanner Colby dissected a specimen of Woodward’s work and ways to devastating effect earlier this year in Slate.
Manning, meanwhile, did the national-security community a tremendous favor by revealing in the least damaging way how ludicrous the mania for decompartmetalization had become. Why would a private first class—in a war zone, no less–have access to the material Manning had at his fingertips, including the cables of United States ambassadors? Manning leaked the material out of personal or idealistic motives; imagine if someone else had leaked that material with an actual intent to harm the country. How hard would it have been for any foreign power or organization to bribe a private to turn over that kind of information in secret, so that it could be used covertly for the advantage of foreign interests? The security threat here was not Manning, it was the fact that this information was easily and widely available to untrusted individuals in the first place.
As for the material itself, not a few diplomats come off looking pretty good in the leaked cables—Richard Hoagland’s analysis of the publicity war with bin Laden in this one, for example, is eminently sensible—though one can see why they wouldn’t want this material publicized. “Collateral murder” was a shocking video, but equally disturbing revelations about U.S. military and intelligence operations, like this one, receive little attention even when they’re reported on page A6 of the New York Times. The irony of Manning’s revelations is that they’re of such a kind that everyone who cares already knows.
Betraying a trust is always a grave matter and ethicists have argued for millennia about when it’s justified. But the nation’s press corps has never questioned the righteousness of Woodward and Bernstein—at least in the affair that made them famous—and if they deserve such adulation, so does Bradley Manning.