Heroes or traitors? Modern Benedict Arnolds or W. Mark Felts, aka "Deep Throat"? Perhaps mini-Che Guevaras with glasses and laptops.
Now that former CIA contractor Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after spending five weeks in Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, and Army Pfc. Bradley Manning has been found guilty at Fort Meade on 20 of 22 counts, including espionage, and now faces up to 136 years in prison, it's a good time to revisit how we see them.
While many debate their place in history for two of the most serious disclosures of classified information in U.S. history, from a strategic view, both represent the dangers of 21st-century warfare.
Though most think of "boots on the ground" as representing military power, today's battlefield has evolved. In modern asymmetric warfare featuring conflict between two unequal forces, information campaigns can affect outcomes as much as rockets and mortars.
Whether al Qaeda and Taliban detainees at Gitmo attacking U.S. legitimacy, Hezbollah and Hamas undermining Israel's right to exist, Latin American indigenous movements struggling for power, or neo-anarchist WikiLeaks seeking to discredit governments, weaker groups leverage public sympathy against the strong, stretching facts and spreading falsehoods to advance their cause via powerful propaganda campaigns.
Idolizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his anti-establishment, counterculture message, both Manning and Mr. Snowden personally struck major blows against America, casting aside their positions of trust requiring them to defend it.
Though proclaiming themselves "whistleblowers," in reality they acted as judge, jury and executioner to attack America. Their adulation of Mr. Assange, a so-called "human rights advocate," ironically wanted by Swedish authorities in connection with two rapes in Stockholm, says a lot about their own character.
Manning stole some 700,000 diplomatic cables, military reports and combat videos and shared them with the world, while Mr. Snowden leaked details of the National Security Agency's PRISM surveillance program before fleeing first to China, then Russia. These acts are by definition espionage and are treacherous.
Though Manning's document dump mostly showed the United States in favorable terms, working behind the scenes for freedom and democracy, some material was taken out of context and used for enemy propaganda. The inherently deceiving "collateral murder" video is a perfect example. It's easy to condemn the Apache helicopter crew over Baghdad as they killed two Reuters crew carrying camera sticks resembling a rocket launcher, but the video omits the fact that rocket-propelled grenades had been fired at U.S. forces nearby.
Yet that's just the type of distortion designed to wound U.S. legitimacy that Manning succeeded in planting.
In Mr. Snowden's case, his disclosures were more damaging than Manning's, setting off a firestorm with U.S. allies outraged at the sheer amount of data on phone records and emails secretly collected from their countries.
Even worse, it provoked a counterproductive showdown in Congress, in which the House narrowly voted down an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill sponsored by Michigan Reps. Justin Amash, a Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat, that would have halted the NSA's metadata program.
Some enjoyed seeing a rare moment of bipartisanship between Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to defeat the measure, with House Speaker John A. Boehner and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the same side of the argument. Had such unwise legislation been passed, it would have crippled a program said to have already stopped more than 50 terrorist plots, and damaged the government's ability to prevent the next Sept. 11-type mass-casualty attack.
Such a precipitous move on Capitol Hill could have been precisely the type of result Mr. Snowden and Manning were looking for. Both took it upon themselves to weaken America and erode its ability to defend itself. Acting as self-anointed special forces in the battle of ideas, they took their best shot against us.
Simply put, they resemble spies and traitors, not whistleblowers. Whistleblowers discuss their grievances with supervisors in their own organizations. Failing that, they can call their locally elected representative. They can testify in courts or before Congress, like the three actual whistleblowers on Benghazi.
They don't boast to online gamers. They don't run and hide in China and Russia.
Facing a lifetime behind bars, Manning is paying a heavy price for his 15 minutes of fame. While Mr. Snowden remains in Russia — a place where severe crackdowns and even the killing of political dissidents is not unheard of — he may come to regret his new life sooner rather than later.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman who served in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005 to 2009.