Daniel Ellsberg: Edward Snowden was right to leave the U.S.

Snowden did what he did because he recognised the NSA’s surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale invasion of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect. —Daniel Ellsberg, Guardian 6/10/13

Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did. I don’t agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago. —Daniel Ellsberg, Washington Post, 7/7/13

Long time contractor for the CIA and the NSA, Edward Snowden, became increasingly troubled by the domestic and international surveillance  activities of the US government under the Bush and Obama administrations. He told the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, that the NSA was intent “on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.”

He made the decision to leak the NSA’s massive surveillance of U.S. citizens (and others around the world) to the press because he knew that whistle blowing within official channels would be futile. When previous whistleblowers, like high-ranking NSA executive Thomas Drake, used official channels to complain about government wrongdoing, they were ignored or demonized by superiors. When they eventually went to the press they were tried under the Espionage Act. Like Daniel Ellsberg before him, who Henry Kissinger called “the world’s most dangerous man” he knew the Obama administration would demonize him and label him a traitor. He knew President Obama had, six times since he took office, charged whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, and that if he went forward, he would become the seventh.

Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

In 1971, military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press. Like Edward Snowden, he was charged under the Espionage Act for copying and leaking the Pentagon Papers to the press. His trial was dismissed in 1973 after evidence of government misconduct, including illegal wiretapping, was introduced in courtIn 2007, in an interview with Democracy Now, Ellsberg said the documents he leaked “demonstrated unconstitutional behavior by a succession of presidents, the violation of their oath and the violation of the oath of every one of their subordinates” He leaked the Papers to end what he perceived to be “a wrongful war”. Writing in the Guardian, in a piece titled “Edward Snowden: Saving us from the United Stasi of America,” Ellsberg, in condemnation of the Obama administration’s policies and actions, says “Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us a chance to roll back what is tantamount to an ‘executive coup’ against the US constitution. “ Strong words, indeed.

One of main complaints leveled at Snowden is that he did not stay and face arrest in the United States as Ellsberg had done in 1971, but as Ellsberg explains, these are different times. After the New York Times was enjoined from publishing the Pentagon Papers, he went underground for 13 days to elude authorities while he approached other newspapers to publish the material. When he finally surrendered to arrest, he was released on a personal recognizance bond the same day. For the whole two years he was under indictment, he was free to speak to the media, to speak at anti-war rallies, and to give public lectures. In a recent op ed in the Washington Post Ellsberg  fully endorses Edward Snowden actions and defends his decision to flee the United States.

There is no chance that experience could be reproduced today, let alone that a trial could be terminated by the revelation of White House actions against a defendant that were clearly criminal in Richard Nixon’s era—and figured in his resignation in the face of impeachment—but are today all regarded as legal (including an attempt to “incapacitate me totally”).

I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado.

He would almost certainly be confined in total isolation, even longer than the more than eight months Manning suffered during his three years of imprisonment before his trial began recently. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture described Manning’s conditions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” (That realistic prospect, by itself, is grounds for most countries granting Snowden asylum, if they could withstand bullying and bribery from the United States.)

The Obama administration’s “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of whistleblowers is designed to deter others from doing the same. Obama’s attempt to make a journalist a co-conspirator in a leak case, and his ordering of the widespread surveillance of the cellphones of AP journalists, is designed to have a chilling effect on reporting what the government is doing, with the help of private contractors, in secret. Ellsberg believes Snowden has done nothing wrong and that such leaks are the “lifeblood” of a free press. They are essential for democracy to survive. He hopes Snowden

. . .finds a haven, as safe as possible from kidnapping or assassination by U.S. Special Operations forces, preferably where he can speak freely.

It is painful, and frightening, to write Ellsberg’s matter-of-fact comment. That a man with Ellsberg’s integrity feels the Obama administration could be trying to silence whistleblower Edward Snowden by kidnapping or killing him should send a chill down the spines of every U.S. citizen. That the Obama administration has openly lied to Congress should send up additional warning flags that the constitution is being violated.

Most journalists today are in a sycophantic relationship with government. The David Gregorys and Wolf Blitzers of the world function as stenographers to power. The true purpose of journalism is to be in opposition to the government, to hold it accountable to the people it is supposed to be serving. Leaks and whistleblowers are essential in a democracy to keep government in check. A government that operates in secrecy is not a democratic government. Ellsberg, in his full throated endorsement of Edward Snowden, reminds us that “secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.”











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