In such a mechanism, Bourne observed, “dissent is like sand in the bearings.” The metaphor is singularly apt. In the realm of national security, dissent matters only when it penetrates the machine’s interior. Only then does the state deem it worthy of notice.
To understand this is to appreciate the importance of what Manning and Snowden have done and why their actions have produced panic in Washington. Here is irrefutable evidence of dissent penetrating the machine’s deepest recesses. Thanks to a couple of tech-savvy malcontents, anyone with access to the Internet now knows what only insiders were supposed to know.
By taking technology that the state employs to manufacture secrets and using it to make state secrecy impossible, they put the machine itself at risk. Forget al-Qaeda. Forget Iran’s nuclear program. Forget the rise of China. Manning and Snowden confront Washington with something far more worrisome. They threaten the power the state had carefully accrued amid recurring wars and the incessant preparation for war. In effect, they place in jeopardy the state’s very authority – while inviting the American people to consider the possibility that less militaristic and more democratic approaches to national security might exist.
In the eyes of the state, Manning and Snowden – and others who may carry on their work – can never be other than traitors. Whether the country eventually views them as patriots depends on what Americans do with the opportunity these two men have handed us.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.”