06/11/2013 12:50 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

You Cannot Hero-Worship Snowden and Manning at the Same Time

If you're hailing as a hero Edward Snowden, the "whistle-blower" who released a number of National Security Agency documents, revealing that the non-stop invasion of privacy enacted during the Bush administration has continued unabated during the Obama administration, then you simply can't be a fan of Bradley Manning.

Here's why: it's the difference between leaking and hacking.

Based on his job with a contractor to the NSA, Snowden became privy to a surveillance program he believes violates the Constitutional rights of Americans. It's a gross invasion of our privacy, with little in the way of oversight to make sure that such monitoring, done in the name of security, is not also used as a means of political persecution.

He selected a number of documents and chose to right a specific wrong. He, like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, like former Associate FBI director Mark "Deep Throat" Felt, engaged in leaking. (There's a fallacy insofar as he "whistle-blew" something that was both legal and already within the public domain. Nonetheless, his theft of the paperwork is being deemed newsworthy for its scale and timeliness.)

Private Bradley Manning stole hundreds of thousands of State Department cables discovered accidentally. They did not fall within the purview of his routine duties, and he could never claim to have a functional knowledge of all of their contents, the way Snowden did.

He accessed a system way above his pay-grade, and used deception to remove the information from the computer network. This is hacking. (It doesn't matter if hacking information was easy, and in his case, it was. If you steal a car because the keys were left in it, it's still a crime.)

Manning had no specific knowledge of crimes contained in these files.

(Or let's say Manning did find crimes. Let's say, for argument's sake, the first 100 pages of cables were riddled with what he thought was crime. There is still no way he read 250 thousand of them and determined that they all supported criminal activity on the part of the State Department. )

No -- Manning made his decision to steal the information based on the hacking world's vague rationale, "If it's secret, it must be bad." And "information wants to be free."

And perhaps even that -- if he did see crime in what he read -- he could take a reasonable guess that there's even MORE crime going on.

Manning allegedly turned that information over to Wikileaks, which document dumped the private State Department cables for everyone, including al Qaeda and nuke-aspiring thugs to see, online.

The cables revealed a great deal of diplomatic gossip, and some counter-intuitive private alliances (such as Pakistan approving more drone strikes, and Yemen agreeing to cover them up.) But even the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Guardian and all the news outlets who covered the leak reported that the cables revealed the basic competence of the U.S. diplomatic corps. (In fact, there was little in the way of revelation about Iraq and Afghanistan from the cables that those newspapers' correspondents had not already spent years reporting on.)

Even Wikileaks founder Julian Assange admits that strongest reportage of alleged crimes and cover-ups contained deep within in the U.S. State Department cables came very, very much after the fact. In some cases, after years of journalism.

But -- to hear their supporters tell it -- Wikileaks and Bradley Manning are heroes! Because the ends justify the means. Assange's argument is they Manning didn't need to know about specific crimes being committed in advance to justify stealing all the cables: what we found out later makes it all worth while.

If you buy that argument, you should work for the NSA.

It doesn't matter that if the NSA doesn't have any knowledge ahead of time about specific terror plots by US citizens or the people they talk to, and it doesn't matter they are monitoring everybody's electronic communications with foreigners. They can take a reasonable guess that there's crime going on. And hey -- information wants to be free.

If then stop just one terrorist attack because of it, then it was all worth while. They are, after all, trying to save lives.

The ends justify the means.

So, if the NSA scandal has you upset, applaud Snowden all you want. That's leaking. Or, applaud Manning all you want. That's hacking -- and essentially the same as what the NSA did. So you've got to pick one.

Note to readers: my own observations regarding those who support both Manning and Snowden suggest that the argument is "the U.S. is an evil empire and no matter what anyone does to take it down a peg is justified." I don't buy it, not just because the means deployed are hypocritical, but because simply being destructive or indulging in trendy notions about "anarchy" are not an answer for how we move forward in a functioning society.

Fans of privacy issues, please post in the comments section what the new definition of privacy -- for both individuals, and the affairs of government and diplomacy -- should be. I am genuinely interested to hear. I am against the prosecution of journalists who deal with leakers.

I'm also keen to hear a comprehensive definition of "hacktivism," which (while I sympathize with some of the issues taken on by groups like "Anonymous") strikes me as opportunistic and wholly without accountability.