June 10th, 2013

Daniel Ellsberg on Edward Snowden: leaks then and now

Not surprisingly, Daniel Ellsberg thinks Edward Snowden’s a great hero.

I’ve written at length about Ellsberg before: a historical look here, and especially this one about his more recent activities (including, interestingly enough, a group he formed a few years ago to assist security-cleared operatives like Snowden who would like to divulge national secrets they feel need divulging).

The title of today’s Ellsberg piece is purposely inflammatory: “Edward Snowden: saving us from the United Stasi of America,” despite the disclaimer in the body of the article, “Obviously, the United States is not now a police state.” Ellsberg is a man of the left, but he seems to think we should distrust the government. And that’s certainly where most of us are at these days, with good reason. But he also seems to think we should trust the impeccable judgment of individuals such as himself, Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden to determine what’s a dangerous violation of national security and what is not, and to reveal only the latter and not the former. Of course, given Ellsberg’s history, he would think that.

But I don’t, although I also don’t see an obvious solution to the dilemma, other than the safeguards the Founders built into the Constitution. But they did not foresee the centralization of information possible in the computer age, and that’s what we’re facing now. That centralization gives the government unprecedented tools to reach into people’s lives and use the information to no good, and it gives a great many more employees such as Snowden (many of whom might have either very bad judgment or very bad motives, despite their security clearances) unprecedented access to scads of such information.

As far as Ellsberg’s history goes, I urge you to read in its entirety this piece I wrote on that subject back in 2006. It’s the third section of an in-depth four-part series on the dilemmas connected with security leakers and whistleblowers on matters related to national security. Ellsberg’s disclosure was (as far as I know) the first time the press participated in printing such a leak; before that, the press would have declined, probably out of patriotism or fear. But Vietnam changed that picture, as well as so many others

Come to think of it, I urge you to also read the other three parts of the series I wrote back then. It all seems relevant. Here’s Part I, here’s Part II, and this is Part IV. It may actually be that fourth essay that is most relevant, because it concerns whether leakers should be prosecuted, and if so, how.

And what about the role of newspapers in showcasing the information provided by the leakers? Ellsberg and his Pentagon papers were presented in a certain way by the press, but as we already know the press is not especially interested in scrupulous devotion to the objective truth. Political agenda? Of course.

Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote about the Pentagon Papers’ press coverage, which contains the following quote from a WSJ article by James Q. Wilson:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the [Pentagon Papers] documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.

The present case—Snowden and the NSA data—presents a curious and I believe unprecedented hybrid of things. If not for the IRS scandal, the NSA revelations would not have had nearly the same impact as they do coming now. The IRS abuses were of the domestic rather than the foreign sort, and did not rely on the disclosure of national security information but were uncovered in an investigation sparked by complaints by the Tea Party victims themselves. But the IRS actions that were uncovered constitute such strong evidence of egregious abuse of sensitive information about American citizens by a government entity for political purposes that it is no longer possible to imagine that the sweeping NSA information would not be used for similar purposes. The fact that the NSA data was gathered by asserting a national security anti-terrorism motive was what makes it somewhat similar to the Pentagon Papers, with their foreign policy subject matter. But the NSA case is quite different in representing the interface of questions on how best to fight that war on terror with questions that are essentially concerned with the domestic liberty of citizens vis-a-vis big government.

[NOTE: I want to remind all who are tempted to think Snowden a hero that his fleeing to China must be regarded as a potential huge red flag. China, bastion of libertarianism?

I myself am conflicted between being grateful about the leaking of the content, and concerned about the method and the precedent it sets, as well as skeptical about what Snowden is really all about, who has helped him, and what they are expecting him to provide for them in return.]

23 Responses to “Daniel Ellsberg on Edward Snowden: leaks then and now”

  1. Rose Says:

    It’s ok. Eric Holder has ‘destroyed’ all the data on ‘innocent’ Americans. He shipped it over to the #OFA chipping and shredding department, I am sure. they know what to do with it.

  2. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Snowden also seems fairly impressed with his own heroism and wants to make sure everyone knows just how brave he is. That, plus his choice of China as a refuge, has me withholding judgment for now.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Mrs Whatsit:

    Yes, the going public is rather odd.

    Some have speculated he has gone public because he thinks it could keep him from being surreptitiously offed.

    But now he’s disappeared.

    He says he’s willing to face the (legal) consequences, but he sure doesn’t act like it. If he did, he’d turn himself in. On the other hand, if someone actually wants to kill him, I could see why he’d go underground. But then why go public in the first place? Wouldn’t his chances be better if he stayed on the lam?

  4. Steve Says:

    I read that Snowden may be seeking asylum in Iceland.

  5. neo-neocon Says:


    Yes, that’s what he says. So why didn’t he go there in the first place?

  6. chuck Says:

    many of whom might have either very bad judgement

    That was certainly true of the communists who passed information to the USSR. Of course, most probably went to the grave convinced of their virtue.

  7. sergey Says:

    Some clarification is needed. China is not bastion of libertarianism, but Hong Kong certainly is and always was. Interestingly enough, this did not changed after it was nominally joined to PRC. And this was a crucial condition of this deal, which no Chinese government would dare to break. This would ruin Bank of Hong Kong and all secret assets of Chinese apparatchiks they hold here, as well as half of PRC economy. And our hero did not bolted to Hong Kong, he was a resident of the place and knows customs of the place jurisprudence as his laptop.

  8. Mike Says:

    United Stasi. Pretty good. Is the actual government we live under now really much different from East Germany in the bad old days? In degree maybe (to date) but not in kind.

  9. neo-neocon Says:


    Not so true any more, nor did he seem aware of the laws there about extradition.

    What’s more, I’ve seen nothing that indicates he was any sort of resident there. He lived in Hawaii. Are you saying he lived in Hong Kong in the past? I have seen nothing to that effect, either. What are you referring to?

  10. Steve Says:

    neo, maybe Snowden saw what happened to Julian Assange and thought the chance of extradition was lower in Hong Kong than in any other country. Now he’s discovering he’s persona non grata in China?

  11. Mike Says:

    Wow. I am self-censoring already. What I was going to say was )((*&&^%$#@#%%* (**^&%##^&*()&&…..but I won’t say it because we now are pretty sure that everything is being monitored by people who see Americans not as political opponents but as enemies. The same people have demonstrated the ability to intimidate whole groups of people. Whatever might they do to defenseless lone individuals. They could do anything and they probably will.

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    That was a stupid calculation, if that was indeed Snowden’s calculation. Why would he think that? Hong Kong has an extradiction treaty with the US and he had every reason to think Hong Kong would not provide refuge.

    There’s just something that makes no sense about his actions, if you believe him.

  13. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “I myself am conflicted between being grateful about the leaking of the content, and concern about the method and the precedent it sets, as well as skepticism about what Snowden is really all about, who has helped him, and what they are expecting him to provide for them in return.”

    Well put and all valid concerns. I share your conflicted feelings, though perhaps not to as great a degree. I think my reasons are twofold; in the long run, massively invasive governmental intrusion into our privacy is, IMO the far greater threat. And I suspect that, under the conditions that now exist, no other alternative exists capable of stopping or even modifying this invasiveness to a lesser degree. Once granted, governments do not willingly give up powers attained.

  14. Ann Says:

    I’m sure he’d love to join Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, but that’s not possible. But maybe he can make his way to Ecuador.

    And maybe he’ll soon have Oliver Stone in his corner, singing his praises the way Stone did for Assange:

    [Assange] lives in a tiny room with great modesty and discipline. (…) Strong mind, no sun, friends who visit, work to be done, (…) I don’t think most people in the US realise how important WikiLeaks is and why Julian’s case needs support. Julian Assange did much for free speech and is now being victimised by the abusers of that concept.

    See, practically a saint.

  15. Ann Says:

    Oliver Stone link.

  16. parker Says:

    This is a confusing situation due to the way Snowden chose to leak this information and his subsequent actions and words. However, I’m glad this massive and intrusive snooping by the NSA and other agencies is out in the open. The only ‘sensitive’ info we know for certain is that our government is treating everyone of us as a potential threat to the government. Yet, as noted above, this same intrusive government intelligence operation let the Boston bombers slip through their fingers. This strongly suggests that under BHO Main Street is the major focus of the NSA, FBI, and the DOJ in general; not foreign nationals with jihad on their minds.

  17. Steve Says:

    neo, didn’t Snowden say all his options are bad? That seems to suggest he knew there was no way out for him. But he went ahead anyway.

  18. Matthew M Says:

    I think there is a pretty significant distinction between revealing the existence of a domestic spying program that seems to be aimed at omniscience and revealing the content of secret government communications.

  19. dbp Says:

    If there is a better place Snowden could have gone, I can’t think of it:

    1. He could go to a small country but if they are friendly to the USA, they might wither under pressure to extradite him.

    2. Countries that are enemies of the USA are unpleasant places to live.

    3. Large countries that could resist the US are generally friendly to us and so would cooperate with us.

    4. Hong Kong is a pleasant place to reside. It is close to an adversary of the US, which has an interest in Snowden’s information and is strong enough to resist any pressure we might exert. If we start procedures to get him from Hong Kong, he will slip into China and out of our reach.

  20. Ymarsakar Says:

    “I want to remind all who are tempted to think Snowden a hero that his fleeing to China must be regarded as a potential huge red flag. China, bastion of libertarianism?”

    Neo, his primary worry is that Obama will give the order to have him killed. Remember.. drones? Don’t need a drone in Hong Kong, as he mentioned anybody can pay off a Triad member for a “hit”.

    China’s record with Hong Kong is strange. Many people fled Hong Kong thinking the Chinese would crush it with Communist policies. That didn’t seem to happen. China hasn’t sent death squads around for awhile. At least, they prefer making money off of you than silencing you, if they can that is.

    So Snow probably thinks that by hiding in China, he gains the passive defense of China and China’s ultra nationalistic tendencies that won’t give into the US. Which is true.

    He is less likely to be extradicted or drone assassinated in Russia or China.

    He may be more likely to be “picked” up and interrogated by the Chinese, but he’s willing to take that risk. So given a choice between what a 29 year old idealist knows about our government vs China’s, he chose China’s government.

    That… in itself, says much. Though words are not truth.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    I hope people understand this if nothing else.

    The Leftist alliance is evil. I’m not talking about chocolate milk is black or vanilla tastes nasty. I’m talking about evil.

    So long as you don’t comprehend the entirety of evil, you will underestimate the Left.

    And they will crush all resistance. The only question is whether Islam crushes them last or us last. The Left and Islam being ALLIES, that is.

    Obama gave AQ weapons and stingers. What makes anyone think he didn’t give them an entire copy of our national database as well?

  22. Mike Says:

    China and America are driving in two different directions. China is becoming less Totalitarian. America is be oming more Totalitarian. China is be oming more Christian; America less Christian. In a generation the two trains will pass each other on the tracks.

  23. Ymarsakar Says:

    Will the world end in fire or ice?

    Light or Darkness?

    Good or Evil?

    Yin or Yang.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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