Why I Don’t Leak Secrets

Updated: December 20, 2013

By J.E. McCollough

One should never trust a government, any government; its nature is to seek first to preserve itself and increase its power. However, for a free society to hope to preserve its freedom, the government MUST be able to trust the citizens within its own ranks or else its self-preservation instincts will be turned on its people and itself.

Julian Assange of Wikileaks and guys like him want our government to turn on itself and the American people, he’s stated as much in his manifesto. He contends that if a government (or “conspiracy,” as he calls it) is caused to fight within itself it will eventually become so ineffective it will collapse. Seeing as how Assange’s method of disrupting the U.S. Government is to publish classified U.S. information it’s pretty clear he wants the US to collapse.

And guys like Edward Snowden are helping him.

Truth-tellers? Whistle-blowers? Traitors? I don’t think all those terms are necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m not going to say if Snowden’s motivations were noble, misguided or malicious. What I will say is that, whatever his motivations, some of the information he initially published could be considered ‘whistle blowing,’ but far more falls clearly into the realm of information that damages the US national security interest. Should he have revealed the NSA was keeping call logs on US citizens? Perhaps, perhaps not. Should he have revealed US espionage efforts against our rivals and our enemies? Absolutely not. The former action may be whistle blowing, the latter is certainly treason.

Honestly, I don’t think the controversy over Snowden, and perhaps to a lesser extent Manning, will be settled in public discourse whatever the courts decide. What makes the discussion even more contentious is that their actions don’t fall neatly into conservative or progressive ideologies. Americans concerned about government overreach on the left, right and middle may find themselves disagreeing with ideological compatriots who are more concerned with protecting their kids than what is really not much more than the government setting up CCTV cameras in Time Square.

But with all the arguing over whether or not what Snowden and Manning did was whistle blowing or treason, I think a lot of people are missing what’s really important, that is, how does our government react as it begins to realize it is no longer able to entrust even highly vetted citizens with sensitive information? Does our government fall into the Assange trap?

I have lived the U.S. Intelligence Community for over sixteen years, both in the Marine Corps and as a civilian. I’ve spent most of my adult life with a security clearance.

leakerObtaining a security clearance is no simple matter. You fill out extensive questionnaires about your personal history, friends, travel, family, associations with foreigners. Your friends and family are interviewed to determine your trustworthiness. You are grilled for hours by investigators and if there are discrepancies between what you say and what you’ve written or what your friends and family say, you will likely be denied a clearance. It is expensive and time-consuming for the government, but worth it to be sure that at the end of the process the government can trust you with classified information.

But now, it can’t. Not really. Yes, there are thousands of dedicated, loyal intelligence professionals working to keep Americans safe, but when you get burned this badly it’s hard to ever trust anyone again.

Now, the government can’t be entirely sure of its most trusted citizens and to me that is frightening. I believe the result will almost certainly be an increase in ‘compartmentalization’ of intelligence. Each program, SIGINT, HUMINT or otherwise, and the resulting intelligence will be restricted to smaller and smaller groups of highly vetted individuals. This will certainly help prevent leaks, but it is also a gradual return to pre-9/11 intelligence practices in the US Intelligence Community, where one agency’s information is only selectively and rarely shared with other agencies. We called it ‘stove-piping,’ the left hand not talking to the right, not ‘connecting the dots,’ and the practice was identified in the 9/11 Commission’s report as one of the reasons we were vulnerable that September morning.

The consequences of the Manning and Snowden leaks, then, will be to encourage the U.S. government to become more paranoid and insular, resulting in a weakening of America’s defenses.

Perhaps not a complete collapse, which is what Julian Assange wants, but certainly a more vulnerable nation.

Was weakening the United States the goal of Manning and Snowden? Not according to their public statements, they each claim a crisis of conscience. That their moral outrage forced their hands.

In the public statement explaining the reasoning for releasing classified information to the world Manning decries the inhumanity of war, not any illegal act she discovered in the mountain of intelligence documents she released.

Snowden said, “”I’m no different from anybody else. I don’t have special skills. I’m just another guy who sits there day to day in the office, watches what’s happening and goes, ‘This is something that’s not our place to decide, the public needs to decide whether these programs and policies are right or wrong.’”

Except… he eventually decided it WAS his place to decide what was right and wrong, and so he released the information he’d stolen.

There may be an underlying societal explanation for Snowden’s and Manning’s actions, beyond their claimed moral outrage. Perhaps they’re neither whistle blowers nor traitors, but the alternative could be even more dangerous for the US government and the future of our free society.

Noted author Charlie Stross wrote an excellent article  earlier this year discussing the generational break that has occurred in America. He states, “In the 21st century, the NSA (and other espionage agencies) face a big system-wide problem that I haven’t seen anybody talking about. The problem is sociological, and it’s going to get worse.”

Stross describes the problem as one of employment expectations of the younger generations. Stross contends, simply put, that they have no expectation they’ll work for the same employer for the long-term, therefore they have no loyalty to any employer. I believe this mentality translates to young federal employees, including military service members like Manning and Snowden, who find themselves with no particular loyalty to their government employer.

I agree with Stross, but I think the generational break goes deeper than just changing employment expectations. Manning and Snowden represent Generations X and Y, citizens raised with few loyalties to anyone aside from themselves. They are sincere in their conscience and confident in the righteousness of their judgments, despite their lack of experience or knowledge, and therefore have no compunction against betraying their oaths to the Constitution. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

If Stross is correct, the U.S. government is now facing a future of generations filled with Mannings and Snowdens, citizens with no loyalty to anything but the

whims of their own consciences. This possibility means there will be fewer and fewer citizens it can trust to safeguard the rest of the American people.

So here it is.

I don’t leak secrets, first, because I’m loyal to my oaths. Second, I don’t want to send our country to a pre-9/11 intelligence system, unprepared for attacks. Lastly, I know that the government is a dangerous beast, and I see no reason to make a dangerous animal more paranoid than it already is. I don’t leak secrets because I don’t trust the government not to overreact to damaging leaks, potentially resulting in worse offenses than ever were leaked or, in a worst-case scenario, completely implode like Assange and his cohorts would wish.

My advice to potential leakers is simple: work to change the system from within and vote your conscience, elect leaders who are willing to change the system. Or better yet, run for office yourself if you’re so convinced the system is flawed and change it yourself.


Opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of The Rhino Den or its parent company, Ranger Up.




  1. Antonio Aguilar

    December 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head. If either of these people, Snowden or Manning, had wanted to truly do the right thing and thought that what was going on was wrong there were other ways for them to get the information out without compromising national security. Our current generation is following in the footsteps of the hippie generation; in that they think they are the final authority on right and wrong and the belief that the ends always justify the means.

  2. Joey S

    December 20, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Having been a part of the Intelligence Community (IC) now for six years, and witnessing the vetting practices first hand, it scares me to think that this is just the beginning. I absolutely agree that there is a generational divide, and current generations (affectionately named Generation Now and Me) have absolutely no loyalty to their oaths. You would think if people have such an issue with something, especially within the IC, they could utilize their chain of command, or file an IG complaint through the proper channels that would get investigated.

    Yes Snowden and Manning brought public attention to an issue, but at what cost in the long run? The President now has a handful of bs recommendations that will only hinder and not address the violations. The only thing that has been accomplished is basically taking our intelligence capabilities and throwing them out the window thanks to these two yahoos.

    My $0.02, take it or leave it.

  3. Tanner K

    December 20, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    I consider Snowden (not Manning because he’s just a liberal pussy who can’t stand the hard truths of war) a fucking hero to the constitution and the American people. In one article you manage to tell the truth about how gov is only out for itself and not for the people (which our constitution clearly states and sets up for in the bill of rights, giving us the right to replace said gov once it no longer has our interests at heart) but then you choose to side with said gov and excuse its bullshit spying on us even tho its forbidden in our free society. That is total retard logic and is the reason why we are just beating our heads against the wall watching this gov take more and more from us. Also considering this writer has been in the Intelligence community for so long, then why does he choose to forget that our country has a very long history of treason by way of classified information being passed to our ENEMIES. Yes thats right, we spent the 80’s tracking down actual spies, double agents, and just plain traitors selling our military secrets to the highest bidder. Let’s pretend like the early to mid 1900’s weren’t ripe with spies and traitors selling secrets to our enemies, instead lets blame it on my generation because two guys simply leaked info to anyone and everyone who could read it, they didn’t do it for money, just because they felt what was happening was wrong. Yea, thats the same thing as what was happening on a much larger scale in the 80’s. Jesus tap-dancing christ. To say that our gov now can’t trust us because of these two idiots, is completely asinine. Our gov doesn’t trust us for the exact reason you start the article off with. Its number 1 main purpose is self preservation, which means fixing it from within isn’t possible, because they have rigged the game/stacked the deck against said possibility for that very purpose… to stay in power. If our gov decides not to trust its people with classified information, you def cannot lay the blame soley at these two and my generation, to try and do so completely ignores over 200 years worth of espionage in this country. Keep bowing to your over lords who tear our constitution apart, the rest of us will continue to live in the shadow of our ancestors who formed the Son’s of Liberty and challenged the oppressive gov to which they had been born too. We pledged fealty to the constitution, NOT this government.

  4. Common Sense

    December 20, 2013 at 10:50 pm

    Agree 100%. Manning is a bullshit idiot. Snowden however, was right to release the extent to which the US government and it’s agencies are deliberately violating the US Constitution and existing laws, both in spirit and in practice. He couldn’t have done it in the US, because they would have shut him up or straight up jailed him. He did the right thing.

  5. Big Brother

    December 21, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    Tanner K,

    Thank you for invoking the Sons of Liberty and our founding patriots. It is very relevant to this conversation.

    Our founding fathers knew well of the dangers of a government, after all they rebelled against what they felt was an oppressive one. However, at the same time they understood intrinsically well that a government could not operate entirely in the open. They knew decisions needed to be made behind closed doors as to not convey to our adversaries and rivals what our strategic plans are. They understood a government would always work this way and attempted to alleviate these concerns by instilling various checks and balances into the Constitution to reign in a too powerful Executive Branch.

    I do not think they envisioned a situation where a single government employee (Snowden) would be the final moral authority — the final arbiter — in deciding the Executive Branch was over reaching. They are probably rolling over in their graves right now at the thought of it.

    Snowden is not a “fucking” hero as you claim. Nor is he a whistleblower. He may have been able to claim that status if all he did was leak specific information on what the NSA collected on American citizens. And then let public discourse and the courts (checks and balances) run its course.

    While this may indeed occur on some specific NSA programs based on a small set of the data Snowden leaked, that is not what Snowden did. Snowden chose to indiscriminately leak information that goes far beyond NSA collection of metadata. He has leaked information on programs focused 100% on our adversaries and rivals. He has leaked information on how we technologically accomplish these tasks. He has done grave damage to our ability to collect information pertinent to our national security. And damaged relations around the world. Further, in everything that has been leaked — there is no damning evidence that our government was using this with the malintent against American citizens. The vast preponderance of evidence supports the programs were fully focused on tracking terrorist and foreign intelligence targets.

    Snowden a hero? Not in the slightest. Snowden is a traitor. A traitor who is not guided by financial profit, but rather guided by a myopic view of his government and an egotistical belief that he is now the moral authority for the entire country. The founding fathers never envisioned a system of government where one misguided, myopic individual would be empowered to make these sorts of decision and cause such grave damage to the countries national security. They did envision a form of government where any over reach in power could be handled within the branches of government.

    If Snowden truely believed a crime was being committed, he had many ther outlets to pursue. He could have requested an investigation through a government inspector general. He could have contacted Congress. Or finally, he could have only leaked one or two specific pieces of information in regards to US citizen meatadata to the press.

    Did he try any of these paths? Did he even try, and fail, to follow the system and the more proper paths? There is no evidence or admission that he attempted in any way to raise these concerns. Instead he lost all integrity and stole information — most of it unrelated to his core grievance of surveillance against Americans — and indiscriminately provided this information to our enemies and the world.

    This is not even comparable to the past espionage cases you cite where specific information was provided to specific countries. What Snowden did was a whole sale leaking of secrets to the world.

    Snowden is not a hero. He is not a a patriot. He is a criminal. Snowden deserves one fate in life: to be remanded to US custody and tried in a court of law.

  6. Common Sense

    December 21, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    “Further, in everything that has been leaked — there is no damning evidence that our government was using this with the malintent against American citizens.”

    This does not matter. You don’t need damning evidence. Wrong is wrong, whether or not you want to believe the politicians must be doing it “for our own good”.
    I also can’t comment on how Snowden could theoretically better revealed this information- however the fact that some of this nonsense was approved at FISA and POTUS levels means that he likely would have gone nowhere but to jail.

  7. Thatguy

    December 24, 2013 at 5:20 am

    Look, not trying to start a firestorm of controversy, but I happen to disagree with the bottom half of your write-up (I do think the fear of stove-piping is very real though), so… well, here we go:

    Firstly, the need to piss on younger generations is always an easy answer to the problem. It’s only natural… my friends (in their 30’s) complain about the youth of today, as our parents did before us. I mean, it isn’t exactly like the “Greatest Generation” were particularly happy about their beatnik and hippy offspring. How many parents called their kids “commies” and questioned their loyalty? But then again, the greatest generation’s own parents couldn’t stand the idea of flappers and swing dancing. We as humans aren’t exactly big on change, and that is exactly what “youth” consists of: change. I like to joke that a boy knows he’s truly a man when he sees a group of teenagers doing something in the corner of room and his first thought is: “now what the hell are those KIDS up to?” We get older — and as a result sometimes a bit more paranoid.

    Secondly, you act as if the idea that they have “…no expectation they’ll work for the same employer for the long-term, therefore they have no loyalty to any employer.” is solely the fault of generations X and the Millennials. It is not; that is decided by a capitalistic market — driven and designed by people FAR OLDER than these younger generations — that gives NO sense of loyalty to THEIR employees. Of course they’re going to wander into the marketplace with a free agent’s mentality: it’s their only option. For a lot of them, it is what learned in school and furthermore the result of what they’ve seen happen to their parents. If you go into most corporate or large market jobs with the idea that they’re going to give you a golden watch, you’re going to get worked like a rented mule only to have your job exported to India. So, I agree the mentality has changed — but I feel blame should lay at more than the “youth” of America’s feet. Our employers (and in this time of layoffs and furloughs even GOVERNMENT employers) aren’t offering loyalty — so it’s only natural to find a ronin here or there. You mentioned working in the Intel community — well so have I (Navy) — it is a pretty flippin’ thankless job. Maybe we can do something about that. Work from within to CREATE a feeling of it being a 30 or 40 year career. Give them a workplace and environment that fosters the idea of collective well being. Or a bar.

    Thirdly and finally: open lips have always been an issue. Read a copy of The Puzzle Palace or the many, many other books that document our intelligence services and their serious issue with leaks. Hell, look at the Rosenbergs, Ames, &c. &c. we’ve always had people selling secrets. We’ve always had turncoats and assholes who’ll sell us out for either a buck or because they feel that another form of governance is better (ie. a “crisis of conscious”). Treason existed prior to the ending of Revolutionary War (coughcough here’s looking at you Mr Arnold). It’s just in our day and age we have an advantage that no one else had: a massive, unguarded, unruled forum to which we can broadcast a message EVERYWHERE INSTANTLY. So, occasionally we get anarchists, or turncoats, or people who feel they deserve a lot of public attention (Mr. Snowden) and instead of them contacting the Russian consulate or the Chinese, they air their grievances online. It’s only natural. Do I have an answer? No more than they did in the 60’s.

    So I guess in conclusion: maybe we should stop blaming these woes on the “youth of America”; perhaps we should find a way to change how we handle those working in our intelligence services to make them feel more engaged and loyal; and we’ve always had schmucks out for a quick buck.

    Oh and on a personal sidenote: I think Snowden is an egotistical piece of filth who is hamming it up for the camera.

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