The NSA Leaks and the Pentagon Papers: What's the Difference Between Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg?

How we answer may say more about us than it does about either of them.
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Edward Snowden has so raised the hackles of members of Congress and political commentators, it's worth taking a minute to try to understand why. It can't just be his leaks -- no similar reaction greeted revelations by Thomas Drake and William Binney, two recent NSA whistle-blowers who also sought to publicize post-9/11 intelligence overreach. Snowden told South China Morning Post reporter Lana Lam, "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American." But there are many sorts of Americans, and not all of them like each other. Something about Snowden has set many people off -- and the sources of the irritation with him are worth spelling out as a way of trying to understand the political moment, and how it differs in particular from the environment that greeted the man to whom he's most been compared, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. This is not a comprehensive list, but one intended to elucidate some of what's at issue.

1. Leakers Are Often Treated as a Type of Snitch. The first and most obvious source of negative reaction has to do with what he did. (Duh.) The New York Times and Washington Post persuasively argue that Snowden cannot be guilty of treason -- as some have suggested -- since by revealing surveillance inside the Unites States (or even inside China) he is not aiding and abetting an enemy with whom we are formally at war. But he is guilty of violating basic human and workplace norms, in addition to his legally actionable promises as a person with top-secret clearance. From the gang-driven Stop Snitchin' campaign in Baltimore to professional cultural norms that ostracize people who publicly complain about their last employer or seek redress for discrimination, people have an instinctive cultural dislike of those seen as tattletales, even if what they have to say is accurate, important, and socially beneficial to disclose. This is why there are formal whistle-blower protections within the federal government and legal protections against retaliation in discrimination cases -- because there need to be, since the first instinct is always against them. So let's posit that Snowden begins his public life with this strike against him -- this inherent prejudice -- at the outset, in addition to the widely held prejudice against people who break laws, as he just openly did.

2. Snowden Lacks Stature and Insider Ties. Ellsberg had stature when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. As the Washington Post put it, "Ellsberg was a senior military analyst working at the Pentagon who had a direct role in drafting the Pentagon Papers." Meanwhile Snowden was, according to the Post, "a contractor who moved through a series of low-ranking jobs for the CIA and the NSA." 

Ellsberg was also deeply embedded in not just the Washington establishment but the national elite, having attended Michigan's prestigious Cranbrook School (Mitt Romney's high school, you may recall from campaign 2012), Harvard University, Cambridge University, a Marine Officers training program (followed by three years in the military in command positions), and was later a fellow at the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows, as well as the recipient of a Ph.D. in economics from the university. At the Pentagon, he helped draft plans for the conduct of the Vietnam War, which he would later see up close working out of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and worked on the Pentagon study of the history of the conflict in Vietnam published by the Times as the Pentagon Papers.

All of this meant that when he leaked the documents in 1971, Ellsberg had a thick web of social and professional relationships in the halls of power that helped shape perceptions of him and his actions, as well as a sophisticated historical understanding of what his act of civil disobedience meant and the political tradition in which he was acting. When he turned against the war, it was as a powerful insider joining his conscience to an existing upswell in public opinion.

Snowden, as a 29-year-old high-school drop-out with a GED who washed out of the military during training (he says, though no one has yet found evidence of this) and who spent much of his career overseas or off the U.S. mainland, has none of this -- no ties to the building of the programs he revealed, no ties in Washington, no pre-existing public presence on the American scene, no elite web of contacts and relationships. His turn against the state is the act of an outsider whose allegiances and personality are known to the media only through a handful of interviews.

3. Snowden Is Culturally Isolated. Ellsberg's actions came at a time when there was a robust social movement demanding change in the exact direction his revelations suggested U.S. policy go -- out of Vietnam. Without the anti-Vietnam War movement, it's arguable he would not have been as important a historical figure, or as daring.

There is no comparable movement to support Snowden, no major anti-surveillance marches on Washington or roiling college campuses, no public burning of Facebook logins and passwords. While there is a robust online libertarian movement concerned with surveillance and privacy issues, there is no force in American life at the present time arguing for change on this front with anything near the power and reach of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

David Brooks's recent column on Snowden says some things I don't agree with, but his take on Snowden as the ultimate bowling-alone figure is right on.

Though thoughtful, morally engaged and deeply committed to his beliefs, he appears to be a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the age: the atomization of society, the loosening of social bonds, the apparently growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments.

If you live a life unshaped by the mediating institutions of civil society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated authoritative structures: family, neighborhood, religious group, state, nation and world. Instead, it's just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and menacing state.

This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of authority, the strong belief that hierarchies and organizations are suspect, the fervent devotion to transparency, the assumption that individual preference should be supreme. 

The solitary individual vs. the gigantic and menacing state. "You can't come forward against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk because they're such powerful adversaries. No one can meaningfully oppose them," Snowden told The Guardian. I would argue that this worldview fundamentally fails to understand the way power works in America: Groups of people can stand up against the state in this free society and win, if they are willing to risk physical hardship together.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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