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.
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.]