Enough with the breathless comparisons. Edward Snowden is no Daniel Ellsberg. I know the latter has heaped praise on the former. But the high-mindedness of our present-day national-security leaker is nowhere near the gutsiness of the man who changed the course of the Vietnam War by releasing the Pentagon Papers more than 40 years ago. And what sparked my ire was Snowden’s interview with the South China Morning Post.
“People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions. I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality,” Snowden told the Hong Kong newspaper. “I have had many opportunities to flee HK, but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.” He added, “My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
Right there in that quote are two reasons why I have a hard time slapping the “hero” label on Snowden. First, the former national-security consultant with only a GED leaked classified documents that he says “reveal criminality.” An inflammatory charge that has yet to be proved. After all, David Ignatius points out today that what Snowden has revealed thus far is legal. And while we have begun a debate about the appropriateness of what the government does in the name of keeping us safe, much of what we’re talking about at the moment has been reported, as The Post’s Walter Pincus noted Tuesday.
Then there’s the issue of Hong Kong. If Snowden has the courage of his convictions why won’t he face the consequences of his actions here on U.S. soil in U.S. courts? Fine, he apparently has no faith in the rule of law in the United States or its courts. But why not ask the American people to decide his fate? He was fighting for us, so I thought. And this is where the comparison to Ellsberg rankles.
Ellsberg’s bio reveals him to be a badass. He earned a B.A. (1952) and his Ph.D. (1962) at Harvard. He was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at King’s College at Cambridge (1952-1953). After getting deferments during his study, he volunteered for the Marines in 1953. He then worked as a contractor for the RAND Corporation and within the government as a high-level staffer at the defense and state departments where he was involved in the execution and escalation of the Vietnam war. It was during a second tour at RAND that Ellsberg worked on the 7,000-page, 47-volume behemoth that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
This work coupled with his meetings with anti-war activists and reading the writings of Thoreau, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, Ellsberg explains in his biography, struck at his conscience.
Later , as I finished my reading of the McNamara Study [U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68,]—a continuous record of governmental deception and fatally unwise decision-making, cloaked by secrecy, under four presidents—I learned from contacts in the White House that this same process of secret threats of escalation was underway under a fifth president, Richard Nixon. The history in the Pentagon Papers offered no promise of changing this pattern from within the bureaucracy. Only a better informed Congress and public might act to avert indefinite prolongation and further escalation of the war. The history in the Pentagon Papers offered no promise of changing this pattern from within the bureaucracy. Only a better informed Congress and public might act to avert indefinite prolongation and further escalation of the war.
Ellsberg started photocopying the Pentagon Papers in 1969 and took them right to chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. William Fulbright. He also took them to Sen. Charles Mathias. When neither senator made them public, Ellsberg dropped them on The New York Times and The Post, which published excerpts on June 13, 1971, and June 18, 1971, respectively. The Nixon administration tried court injunctions to stop their publication, but the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 against the government. But that’s not all Nixon did to try to stop Ellsberg.
Like Snowden, Ellsberg went into hiding upon publication of the Pentagon Papers. But that’s where the similarities end. According to the 2010 PBS documentary,“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” Ellsberg and his wife hid in Cambridge, Mass., for two weeks before he turned himself in at the Federal Courthouse in Boston on June 28, 1971.
Initially under the Espionage Act, Ellsberg faced up to 20 years in prison. By the time conspiracy and other counts were added to the indictment, Ellsberg was facing 115 years and [former RAND colleague, Anthony] Russo 35 years. But the government case against the two men was so compromised by questionable or illegal government actions that Judge Matthew Byrne threw the indictment out on May 11, 1973 — a victory for free speech and the right of people in a democracy to know what their leaders are doing, and an event that is cited in court cases to this day. Not least of the government’s illegal actions was the formation of the White House “Plumber’s Unit,” whose first and foremost target was not the Watergate Democratic headquarters but the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Not trusting the rule of law, Nixon wanted to dig up dirt on Ellsberg to, as he put it, “convict the son-of-a-bitch in the press.”
Armed with an intimate knowledge of what was happening in the Vietnam War, Ellsberg faced a crisis of conscience about the actions of his country. Before going to the press, he tried to enlist the help of Congress. And when it came time to be held accountable for his actions, Ellsberg didn’t leave his family or his country. He stayed right here to face the consequences of leaking top secret documents. Knowing this, Snowden’s preaching from the other side of the world is bit hard to take.
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