It is simply not possible to belittle Daniel Ellsberg’s contribution to the annals of actual whistleblowing. He uncovered illegal activity on the part of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, and probably saved many lives in the process. Ellsberg was a true whistleblower and a hero.
Which is why it’s distressing when someone with the gravitas of Daniel Ellsberg actually comes out and defends Edward Snowden, as he did in the pages of the Washington Post yesterday. It is especially distressing when Ellsberg compares what Snowden did with his actions in the 1960s. There is no comparison to be made. Nothing is the same.
First of all, there’s the content of the leaks.
In 1969, Ellsberg, who was already an anti-Vietnam war activist, copied and leaked The Pentagon Papers, which were secret documents that, among other things, revealed that the entire US Defense apparatus were conducting the war, while admitting that they knew it was probably unwinnable. In other words, these papers demonstrated that the Johnson Administration had lied to get us into the war, and lied to get us mired in the war to an ever-increasing degree. This was important, because it forced the Nixon Administration to change its conduct of the war, which probably saved thousands of American lives.
Compare that to Snowden’s revelations thus far, which largely consist of out-of-context documents detailing a program that wasn’t actually secret and which, based on the documents Snowden has provided to date, appear to be in full compliance with the law. Essentially, the revelation is that the NSA is collecting metadata on phone calls and Internet communications, so that they can scan them and match them with phone numbers and IP addresses of known terrorists and other bad guys. No lives have been saved by these revelations. Since the data he’s released is rather mild in tone, it’s doubtful that they’ll cost lives, but that is actually a greater possibility than saving them.
Put simply, drafting millions of men and flying them off to an unwinnable war to face death is a bit more important than the metadata from your phone calls. I can’t imagine anyone would argue with that.
Second, there is each man’s status and knowledge.
Ellsberg, a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard, was deeply embedded in the intelligence process for a decade by the time of the leak. He worked at the RAND Corporation in the early 1960s, as a strategic analyst dealing with nuclear strategy, until he began working for Robert MacNamara, Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, and then spent two years in Vietnam, working as a civilian at the State Department. He returned to RAND in 1967, where he received an extremely high clearance level, and began working on a study of classified documents having to do with the conduct of the Vietnam War. This is where the Pentagon Papers came from. By the time he copied and leaked those documents, he had intimate knowledge of what was in them, and of the stories they told.
Compare that to Snowden. I won’t get into his educational history, since it’s sort of muddled, and varies depending on who is speaking at a given moment. But suffice it to say, he has no Ph.D. While he implied early on that he was an NSA analyst, he was actually an IT contractor with Booz Hamilton, who happened to be stationed at the NSA. It is unlikely he was at any meetings discussing the documents he’s leaked, which means it’s unlikely he has any actual context for them. He went to work with the NSA with the express purpose of stealing documents from them. Which he did. He spent a grand total of three months working with the NSA. Who has enough experience to understand complicated intelligence documents after 90 days on the job. Snowden can’t be a whistleblower, because he couldn’t possibly have known what he had in those documents. Unless someone told him what they meant. Which lead to:
Third, look at how each man acted after the leaks.
Ellsberg knew what he had done when he leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, and being a man of principle, he turned himself in to the authorities. As has been the case for all time, people who commit civil disobedience usually submit themselves to the process, because they believe in the process more than their own skin. That’s how a patriot and a cause gain credibility. And Ellsbeg was 100% honest through the entire process. He knew he was right, and he knew he would be vindicated. There was no way the American public would have allowed him to spend life in prison for telling the truth and saving lies. And there’s something else to think about; the only documents he took and leaked were relevant to the main point he was making.
Compare that to Snowden. Snowden didn’t even wait until he leaked the documents before he fled the country. He downloaded what has been described alternately as “thousands” or “hundreds” of documents, lied to Booz Allen and the NSA about needing treatment for illness, and flew to Hong Kong, to stay in a posh hotel for a couple of weeks before leaking the documents through Glenn Greenwald, an American living in Brazil and working for a British newspaper. For a day or two, he tried to remain anonymous, but then released a video identifying himself and suggesting in that video that HE could download anyone’s phone calls and emails, and suggesting he was making a major sacrifice, giving up a $200,000 job in Hawaii and a life, to reveal something that anyone with an Internet connection and a search engine could find out existed, even if they couldn’t find out all of the details.
Snowden has not acted honorably in all of this at all. Why China? Because they’re a bastion of freedom? He the flew to Moscow, in another country known for their rampant freedom. The Russian government, led by former KGB honcho Vladimir Putin, would never spy on its citizens, would they? He was allegedly planning to make a stop in Cuba for a while, too; you know, because they’re known for their freedom from government interference. We already know he’s told China about some of the surveillance on them; what’s the purpose for that? Does he really think we’re not going to be spying on China? They’re spying on us. And the revelations over the last weekend that we’re also checking metadata on Brazilian phone numbers and IP addresses are just bizarre. Is there a connection to the fact that Greenwald lives in Brazil? And has anyone considered that the NSA couldn’t obtain that information without cooperation from the Brazilians.
No, there is no comparison to be made between what Ellsberg did and what Snowden has done, and the attempt by Ellsberg to compare them is nothing short of bizarre. Given the relatively benign nature of the information Snowden leaked, he could turn himself in, and he’d probably get a reasonable bail, and would probably spend no more than a year or two in prison. He might have to work at Wendy’s, because no one will trust him with anything important ever again, but what does he think he’ll do in Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia, anyway?
Of course, that’s if all he did with the documents he stole was to leak them to Greenwald and the Washington Post. Perhaps that’s not all he did with them. Did the Chinese and Russian governments get a little gift in return for their hospitality?
See the problem? Ellsberg had the courage of his convictions. Snowden has no courage.