The Geeks Who Leak

The President calls them a threat to national security. The Internet calls them heroes. A new wave of hacktivists is changing the way we handle secrets

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Photo-Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME. Swartz: Fred Benenson; Snowden: Guardian / Glenn Greenwald / Laura Poitras / EPA; Manning: Patrick Semansky / AP

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On the run in a Hong Kong hotel room, Snowden explained in a video interview the reasons for his actions, with pride and a hint of serenity, even as he described how he could be killed, secretly "rendered" by the CIA or kidnapped by Chinese mobsters for what he had done. He characterized the surveillance systems he exposed as "turnkey tyranny" and warned of what would happen if the safeguards now in place ever fell away. He hoped to force a public debate, to set the information free. "This is the truth. This is what is happening," he said of the documents he had stolen and released. "You should decide whether we need to be doing this."

Three years earlier, a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst stationed in Iraq named Bradley Manning offered a nearly identical defense for a similar massive breach of military and diplomatic secrets. "I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public," Manning wrote to a hacking friend in 2010 after he had illegally sent hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the website WikiLeaks.

Like Snowden, Manning said his worst fear was not that his actions would change the world but that they wouldn't. Both young men grew up in the wake of the security crackdown that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. They had come of age online, in chat rooms and virtual communities where this new antiauthority, free-data ideology was hardening. They identified, at least in part, as libertarians, with Manning using the word to describe himself and Snowden sending checks to Ron Paul's presidential campaign. Neither appeared to believe he was betraying his country. "Information should be free," wrote Manning before his capture, later adding that he was not sure if he was a hacker, cracker, hacktivist, leaker or something else. "It belongs in the public domain."

"We Are Legion"

Manning's statement is a radical one, since it directly undermines the rule of law, something both men seemed to recognize. "When you are subverting the power of government, that's a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy," Snowden said of his actions. And in official Washington, the broad consensus is that the impulse is dead wrong and likely to cause real harm. "What this young man has done, I can say with a fair amount of certainty, is going to cost someone their lives," said Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss, who is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Neither the Obama White House nor the leaders of either party are much concerned about the legality or the effectiveness of the sweeping data-collection programs; both sides, however, seemed quite keen to track down Snowden and bring him to justice. The public, according to a new TIME poll, echoed that impulse, with 53% of Americans saying Snowden should be prosecuted, compared with just 28% who say he should be sent on his way.

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