The Most Famous Whistleblowers on Why They Leaked

Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden on accountability in government

America's most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, talked via video at a New York hacker conference earlier this week. What follows is a condensed transcript highlighting a portion of their exchange on why they each decided to leak and why they identify with one another. The panel was moderated by Trevor Timm of Freedom of the Press Foundation. Unedited video of the whole conversation is on YouTube: 

EDWARD SNOWDEN: To Dan Ellsberg, thank you for everything you've done, for your service both inside the government and outside the government, for everything you've done for our nation, our society. You have given so many so much, and told us the truth about what our government was doing at a time when the truth was very hard to get. And I have to say, I watched a documentary about your life as I was grappling with these issues myself. And it had a deep impact and really shaped my thinking. So thank you for everything that you've done. 

TREVOR TIMM: I was hoping Dan could describe what it felt like the first time he heard about Edward Snowden: his feelings on seeing what he had given the world.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I can tell you exactly what I felt: hope, which had not been in great supply for me .... I felt that when Chelsea Manning was revealed. I used to ask myself, how often do you need a Pentagon Papers, which was a massive disclosure. One document doesn't do it, as Ed knows. They can say, "Well we changed that the next day," or, "That was just some particular little department, some low level person." So what you really need is a mass of stuff, as in the Pentagon Papers, that shows, no, this is what they said the next day and the day after that, and here's the official policy, and so forth. And I waited 40 years to hear that.

So I was losing hope that there would be anybody inside who was willing to risk his or her life and freedom, to put out what needed to be put out. Because if you put out a lot of stuff, technically you have to be something of a specialist to put out a lot of stuff and not be identified. So I was feeling not hopeful that it would come. And then just three years after Manning comes Snowden. So I was feeling that it is possible. 

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You touched on technology. You talked about how people are able to use specialist skills to gather information that's tremendously important to the public. And they're able to publish that and get it around the world before anyone is able to stop it—before they're able to kill the story, shut the public out of government, and divorce us from our democracy. The key to me is that technology empowers dissent. People forget this because they only think about the recent examples. They think about me. They think about Manning. But they forget that technology actually enabled you. People forget that you were in a garage with a Xerox machine. A copy machine might not seem like a killer app to a lot of people. But that enabled you to get this back to the public. And the same Xerox machine that gave you that gave us samizdat back in the former Soviet bloc. Its important to recognize that technology empowers individuals, it empowers voices, it empowers democracy, in a way that can turn one man into a movement or a woman into a world power. And that has fundamentally changed the way we related to our government and the way that our government relates to us.

TREVOR TIMM: This next question is for you, Dan. Often times, Ed's biggest critics invoke your name in a positive way and try to contrast what you did with what Edward did. How does that make you feel? Do you agree or disagree with them? 

DAN ELLSBERG: This bullshit in a way started with Barack Obama. When somebody took the occasion to ask him about Manning, and said, "Didn't Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) do exactly what Ellsberg did?" he could've answered that various ways. What he said was, "Ellsberg's material was classified in a different manner." Well, that was true, in a way. Everything that Manning put out was Secret or less. And everything I put out was Top Secret. That was the difference. In Ed's case, it was all higher than Top Secret, which I earlier would have said shouldn't be put out, until you see what it says. Then you see it's evidence of criminality, and he should not be subject to prosecution for revealing it even though it is higher than top secret. I found that starting in 2010, thanks to Manning and now to you, I'm getting more favorable publicity than in 40 years. Suddenly people who were all for putting me in prison for life say that I'm a good guy, the good whistleblower. 

I've totally rejected this from the beginning. I didn't want to be a foil for showing up badly two people that I totally admired and identified with. There are lots of leakers who are totally anonymous, and I appreciate them. But the difference is that Manning and you clearly felt, as I had 40 years ago, a willingness to put out enough material that could put us in prison for life. When Manning said ... he was willing to go to jail or even be executed ... I said to myself, I have waited 40 years to hear somebody say that. That's the way I felt 40 years ago. And it's taken this long.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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