What Edward Snowden’s critics forget about Daniel Ellsberg


GTWN-22Apr2014-LLewis-j1-1 One year ago, The Guardian published the first disclosure of secret NSA surveillance activities by Edward Snowden. Four days later, the whistleblower revealed his identity to the world. Ever since, NSA officials and supporters have disparaged Snowden as “no Daniel Ellsberg.” But, the Ellsberg they use for comparison bears only a foggy resemblance to the Nixon-era, “Pentagon Papers” whistleblower.

On coming forward

Ruth Marcus, of the Washington Post, is one of those who claims Snowden fails to measure up to Ellsberg.

But what did Ellsberg do? He came forward. He said he thought it was his responsibility as an American citizen, after actually he tried to get his information to the Senate and have the Senate reveal the information.

When that whistle-blowing didn’t work, he took it to reporters. And so that’s one big difference. And the second big difference is, he stuck around, came forward, said, fine, go ahead and prosecute me. The prosecution failed because his rights had been violated, but the system worked for him. Edward Snowden didn’t give the system a chance to work for him. (Ruth Marcus)

In Secrets: A memoir of Viet Nam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg tells us what really happened. He describes trying to disclose the Pentagon Papers anonymously and, after it appeared that his identity had been revealed, going into hiding for two weeks. He came forward only after a warrant was issued for his arrest.  Snowden, who revealed his identity almost immediately but chose exile in lieu of arrest, compares more favorably with the real Ellsberg.

On leaving the country

Snowden’s decision to flee the country has been attacked as cowardly, even treasonous—so unlike Ellsberg, some say.  For Ellsberg, however, fleeing the US was more difficult and less palatable. Whereas Snowden is single, Ellsberg had a wife and children.

Ellsberg, too, would have left the country, if the Nixon administration had had its way. In Secrets, Ellsberg asks, “How was information to be gained from a psycho-analyst’s office to contribute to “preventing further disclosures” by me?,” referring to a comment by Egil Krogh, the man in charge of the White House operatives who broke into Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst’s office to steal potentially embarrassing files (442).

In terms of the objectives of the SIU [Special Investigation Unit] as Krogh understood them, however, the prospect not of actually leaking it but of threatening to reveal something they had discovered made great sense. According to Branch, some rather specific objectives were discussed. Faced with some sufficiently shaming exposure, I might at a minimum be induced to refrain from further disclosures. I might even be led to flee the country for asylum in Cuba or Algeria, like Eldridge Cleaver or Timothy Leary, or possibly induced to commit suicide… (Secrets, 443).

In that light, it is unsurprising to hear that the US government revoked Snowden’s passport, trapping him in Russia as he was passing through Moscow’s airport, where Snowden says he planned to catch a flight to South America.

On using official channels

Snowden has been faulted for (allegedly) not taking his concerns through official channels—as Ellsberg did. It’s rarely mentioned that Ellsberg’s effort failed.

Initially, Ellsberg turned to members of Congress such as Senator J. William Fulbright [D-Arkansas], Senator Charles Mathias Jr. [R-Maryland], Senator George McGovern [D-South Dakota] and Congressman Paul (Pete) McCloskey Jr. [R-California], all in the hope that one of them would be willing to enter the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record. Despite his pleas, all four declined.

Unlike Ellsberg, Snowden could determine in advance that contacting Congress would be futile. Other NSA whistleblowers had contacted Congress about NSA abuses, to no avail. Why run the risk of being arrested like Thomas Drake, if there was no likelihood of success? Moreover, newspapers were reporting that two senators were already alarmed by NSA activities but refused to disclose details.

On seeking justice

Critics slam Snowden for not submitting to trial and letting the justice system “work” as Ellsberg supposedly did. But, the justice system did not work for Ellsberg except in a very perverse way. It was so corrupted that Judge Matthew Byrne declared a mistrial and dismissed the charges against Ellsberg and co-defendant Anthony Russo. Both rejected an offer of more ‘justice.’

Before rendering his decision, the judge offered the defendants [Ellsberg and Russo] the opportunity to go to the jury for a verdict. He said that he would withhold his ruling on their motion to dismiss if they wanted. He indicated that if they did decide to go to the jury, he would probably dismiss some of the counts — six for espionage, six for theft and one for conspiracy.

He said that he believed enough of the case was left to litigate before the jury, if the defendants so desired. They did not, and then he read his ruling.

As a result of the mistrial, Ellsberg never was tried on the merits of his case; a good thing because he was charged with violating the Espionage Act, which  does not allow a defendant to even attempt a whistleblower defense.  Ellsberg says Edward Snowden would not be so lucky If he were subjected to similar abuses.

That includes burglarizing my former psychoanalyst’s office (for material to blackmail me into silence), warrantless wiretapping, using the CIA against an American citizen in the US, and authorizing a White House hit squad to “incapacitate me totally” (on the steps of the Capitol on May 3, 1971). All the above were to prevent me from exposing guilty secrets of his own administration that went beyond the Pentagon Papers. But under George W. Bush and Barack Obama,with the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendment Act, and (for the hit squad) President Obama’s executive orders, they have all become legal. (Ellsberg)

In addition, while Ellsberg’s trial was underway, President Nixon and John Erlichman met with Byrne, the trial judge, to offer him the job of FBI Director. (Secrets, 449).  Byrne claimed he met only briefly and did not discuss the offer, Ellsberg writes, but “Erhlichman claimed that Byrne had expressed great interest in the job on both occasions.” (450).

If anyone is reluctant to allow justice to work, clearly it is the United States government.

In conclusion

Those who use Ellsberg as a model of whistleblowing forget how he cruelly he was disparaged in 1971. They forget that the Nixon administration used “anonymous quotes and non-existent ‘secret’ evidence” to mischaracterize Ellsberg as a Soviet spy, 

While opponents of the Vietnam War embraced Ellsberg as a courageous hero, many hawks viewed him as a traitor whose disclosures benefited America’s enemies in the middle of a war, a schism that is not dissimilar from the public debate about Snowden today. (Eyal Press)

It escapes Snowden’s critics that, while some things have changed since 1971, the motive for attacking whistleblowers has not.

We can’t be in a position of—of ever allowing—just because some guy is going to be martyr, of allowing the fellow to get away with this kind of wholesale thievery, or otherwise it’s going to happen all over the government. —Richard Nixon, June 29, 1971 

Photo:  Daniel Ellsberg at Georgetown University, 2014. By Linda Lewis.

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