Heroes and villains – a modern definition

Whistleblowers are vilified or intimidated while the wrongs and the wrongdoers that they expose go uninvestigated

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It takes a lot to overshadow the news that the biggest leaker of military secrets in American history has just been jailed for 35 years – a sentence some regard as outrageous and others as so lenient it constitutes a tacit rebuke to the US government for prosecuting Private Bradley Manning, the soldier responsible for the leaks, instead of lauding the whistleblower for exposing human rights abuses by the American military.

But the world went to bed on Thursday calling the defendant Bradley, and on Friday morning learned that Manning gender dysphoria and from now on wanted to be considered a woman named Chelsea. (The Independent on Sunday uses Manning's preferred feminine pronouns.)

Manning's struggle over gender identity was reduced to jokes about what was correct form: "Manning is now a woman: All power to him." Or pedantic legal disputes about when a transgendered individual's name should change. Or earnest discussions on the mutability/ immutability of gender. Or coarse abuse about how Manning could "look forward to all the dick she wants in jail", a reference to the sad truth that a transgender person is 13 times more likely to be assaulted than other inmates in US prisons.

The self-righteousness and self-delusion about much of the comment was an apt metaphor for a more profound muddle. How, in all the current preoccupation with secrets and leaks, does society achieve a proper balance between the rights of the individual and the obligation of the government to ensure national security?

Hero or zero computations do not work in these cases. Much of what Manning did was a global public service, drawing attention to morally questionable US behaviour in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Thanks to her, we have evidence of American troops killing women and children, and then calling in an airstrike to destroy the evidence. We know the US military failed to investigate reports of torture and murder by Iraqi police – and of the "black unit" which carried out 373 extrajudicial assassinations of Taliban sympathisers in Afghanistan. We know the US pressured Spain to scale back its investigations into torture at Guantanamo Bay. And we know that British officials let the US take cluster bombs through the UK and hid this from Parliament.

But she also passed to WikiLeaks a mind-boggling 760,000 classified documents that included the names of US informants in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we know al-Qa'ida then scrutinised. That was why US prosecutors sought to have Manning convicted of "aiding the enemy" – which carries the death penalty. Such was the vindictiveness in the treatment of Manning, who was held in solitary confinement for almost a year, that the judge reduced her sentence. But even if the US authorities got the balance wrong, there was certainly a judgement to make.

The same is true of Edward Snowden, the IT contractor with the US National Security Agency who leaked thousands of US secrets to The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. Snowden blew the whistle on the fact that US secret agents have for years logged the details of nearly every American telephone call and email – and that the NSA's British equivalent, GCHQ, intercepts those emails that American spooks are forbidden by US law from inspecting.

That has instituted a highly desirable debate about the penetration of the modern surveillance state in ordinary lives. But there is a downside to Snowden – and not just because the leaks have alerted less sophisticated terrorists to be more careful in their plotting. Snowden fled first to China, where he revealed that US intelligence had hacked into Beijing's computers, and then to Russia, where he has sought political asylum, and bizarrely called the Putin regime a defender of human rights. The man who started out claiming he was trying to protect US citizens now appears to be intent on the opposite.

Miranda the Mule is loaded with the same ambiguity. David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, was stopped at Heathrow, held under the Terrorism Act 2000, and interrogated for nine hours about the encrypted electronic data he was carrying to Brazil, where Greenwald lives. Had Greenwald, a US citizen, made the run, he risked extradition and a charge under the US Espionage Act.

Miranda claimed not to know what he was carrying – a declaration that would have prevented his boarding any tourist flight. It seems clear that the police held him under the wrong legislation. But again, to detain and question someone the police suspect to be carrying data that could compromise British national security is not unreasonable. Greenwald's retaliatory threat that he will publish more documents on England's spies to make them "sorry for what they did" reinforces, rather than diminishes, the police case.

Opinion polls consistently show that the British public is prepared to sacrifice some freedoms to feel safe. A YouGov poll in the past few days showed that 44 per cent of people thought the police had got it wrong over Miranda. But it also showed that the public still backs, by three to one, the relevant provision of the 2000 Terrorism Act.

Manning was a soldier who did her military duty until she felt the call of a higher moral duty to protest against abuses by the army of which she was a part.

Snowden's motives look altogether murkier, and journalists exploiting them have a duty to take additional care in handling the material he is leaking.

As to the US authorities, they need to ask why a whistleblower was given 35 years when the offenders whose wrongs she disclosed are still unprosecuted, and even feted as hero war veterans.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor of public ethics and media at the University of Chester

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