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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Even the current corporate titans of Silicon Valley, who have long been libertarian in their politics, have not been far behind. Shortly after the Snowden leak named Google, Facebook and Microsoft as partners in the Prism program, the companies all asked the Justice Department for permission to disclose more fully their heretofore secret cooperation with the courts. The reason: they did not want to damage their brands, which have long embraced free experimentation and minimal regulation on the Internet. "Google has nothing to hide," the company's chief legal officer David Drummond announced in an open letter.

But what is accepted wisdom among the tech community is viewed with some skepticism with much of the American public. The TIME poll found that only 43% of the country thought the government should "cut back on programs that threaten privacy," while 20% said the government should be doing more, even if it invades privacy. On the question of whether they approved or disapproved of the current programs revealed by Snowden, the nation was basically split, with 48% approving and 44% disapproving.

The government, meanwhile, is likely to treat Snowden as if he was a Cold War spy seeking to undermine the country he still claims to serve. The Justice Department has launched an investigation into the disclosure of classified information, a prelude to a standard espionage prosecution. Even though charges may not be filed for weeks, it is likely that prosecutors will try to extradite Snowden to the U.S. for trial and seek a punishment of life in prison.

Perhaps the clearest summary of the federal response to this new online political activism can be found, appropriately enough, in a classified 2008 document from the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center, which has been leaked and posted online by hacker activists. "Websites such as WikiLeaks.org have trust as their most important center of gravity protecting the anonymity and identity of the insider, leaker, or whistle blower," the document reads. The solution, concludes the Army, is to find, expose and punish those people who leak in an effort to "potentially damage or destroy this center of gravity and deter others considering similar actions."

Already, the government may have overinterpreted that guidance. Manning, after his arrest more than three years ago, was subjected to harsh incarceration conditions, including confinement to his cell 23 hours a day, that have raised the concerns of Amnesty International, a former U.N. human-rights investigator and even a former State Department spokesperson, Philip Crowley, who called the conditions "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." Crowley resigned over those comments, but a federal judge later ruled that Manning's final sentence would be reduced 112 days to compensate for harsh pretrial treatment.

Manning has already pleaded guilty to 10 counts of misusing classified information, with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. He is now undergoing a court-martial at Fort Meade, Maryland, the same military base where the NSA is headquartered, on additional charges of aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act, with the possibility of life in prison. "The more I read the cables, the more I came to the conclusion this was the type of information that should become public," he has testified in his own defense.

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