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.


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.

Even in the Guantanamo Bay prison -- perhaps the least American place run by Americans -- individuals who are being held indefinitely without trial are using collective action to protest their detention with a hunger strike that requires the state to brutally force feed more than 100 of them. This brutality has brought new attention to their plight and contributed to the president's decision -- along with changes in the political environment in Yemen -- to resume transfers of the prisoners to Yemen, the country of original of nearly half the remaining detainees. Collective action and the capacity to withstand suffering in service of a political aim works when the petitioned target is a free, democratically governed society, even when undertaken by people with very few legal rights. (The process often works exceedingly slowly, however.)

See also: the actions of the DREAMers, young people who outed themselves as undocumented and whose dare to the government to deport them helped bring about policy changes that are letting them stay in America, for now.

4. He's Warning of Theoretical Rather Than Actual Physical Harms. Ellsberg was seeking to stop a policy that was leading to American deaths during an era in which young men were drafted into combat, which is to say, subjected to a policy that theoretically made them all at risk of being killed. Snowden is warning against a possible future evil -- what he called "turn-key tyranny." That's a lot harder for people to get agitated about, because it is less direct and tangible, less physically threatening. We remain embodied creatures, despite the Internet, and much of our legal system reflects the reality that physical harms are graver offenses than non-physical ones.

So, too, with Snowden's warnings that the infrastructure of online surveillance could be used to crush dissent. Sure, surveillance of political dissidents -- something that has a history in America -- could theoretically be used to stifle dissent in the future. But the reality is that anyone involved in a protest movement already has to assume government monitoring -- either by local police (as with protesters planning to rally against the Republican Convention in Philadelphia in 2000, who learned after being arrested their group had been infiltrated by undercover police) or the feds (as with the Free Speech Movement activists in California in the 1960s, as detailed in Seth Rosenfeld's book Subversives). Meanwhile the biggest threats against activists are physical, not observational. Martin Luther King Jr. maybe have been taunted anonymously by an FBI that was bugging his rooms, but it was an assassin's bullet that stopped him. The Occupy encampments may have been monitored by the state (we can safely assume), but it was police in riot gear with pepper spray who uprooted their movement.

(And no, I am not comparing the two morally, just noting that knowledge of surveillance does much less to stop dissent in this country than does physical force or detention.)   
5. He Left America. My country, right or wrong. America -- love it or leave it. Snowden is on the wrong side of all the old conservative cliches, at once overestimating the power of its intelligence apparatus and underestimating his country's fealty to democratic oversight processes. The U.S. intelligence community, he warned reporter Barton Gellman, "will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information." This is an unimaginable accusation -- the U.S. government does not kill Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalists on American soil, and certainly does not do so to stop the disclosure of previously partially disclosed information.

Outlandish assertions like this as well as conflict over Snowden's claims about the actual reach of the PRISM program -- direct access to servers to read the emails of all Americans or court-overseen transfer of files related to targeted persons of interest? -- create the suspicion he's a bit of an overseller. Meanwhile the fact that his disclosures have not been limited to the revelations about surveillance of American citizens undermines his contention he's acting to inform the American public, rather than international audiences, including those in China, where he has taken refuge. Leaving America is what someone who does not expect to be part of a collective change movement does, not the move of someone who wants to lead one.

6. The Majority Rules Here. Snowden's greatest foe on the home front is not his fantasy of an all-powerful national-security apparatus that kills even famous Americans willy-nilly to protect its secrets, but the nation's democratically elected representatives, who are now rallying against him.

Snowden's views on national security and surveillance are not well-represented among elected officials. Ron and Rand Paul are outliers. One tends most to see civil disobedience in such situations -- where there is a gap between intense minority sentiment and the views of the majority of elected officials. It's a kind of democratic failure and democratic success at the same time -- a process of self-correction, and one that is not easy.

7. What He Revealed Is Legal. "The difference between what the Bush administration was doing in 2001, right after 9/11, and what the Obama administration is doing today is that the system is now under the cover and color of law," whistleblower Thomas Drake wrote in The Guardian. This is not an insubstantial point.

That programs once conducted without legal basis have been modified and brought under the banner of the law just shows that the law can accommodate itself to changed circumstances. But it changes the tenor of the complaint.

8. The Politics of the War on Terror Encourage Maximalism. At the same time that we're having this conversation over Snowden's revelations about what has been created under the Patriot Act, Rep. Ed Markey is being attacked in his U.S. Senate bid for being "soft on national security" for having failed to support the Patriot Act strongly enough. All the incentives in the political system push politicians toward supporting maximalist stances on anti-terror policy. Any attack is an issue opponents will run on, a set of grieving families to comfort, an actual functional failure to keep the people safe.

9. The Most Tangible Threats to Privacy Do Not Come From the Government. "Why should people care about surveillance?" Glenn Greenwald asked Snowden. His reply:

Because even if you're not doing anything wrong you're being watched and recorded. And the storage capability of these systems increases every year consistently by orders of magnitude to where it's getting to the point where you don't have to have done anything wrong. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody even by a wrong call. And then they can use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you've ever made, every friend you've ever discussed something with. And attack you on that basis to sort to derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.

You mean, by writing articles like "Edward Snowden's Online Past Revealed"? The reality is that for people who are not protesting some kind of government policy, the single greatest threat to privacy -- and even the originality and creativity Snowden has signaled he cares about -- comes from participation in online life and sharing photos and opinions with the world.

We have met the panopticon, and it is us: Most people already know that their information shared online is shared -- not in their control, not private. Their friends and neighbors control their images, people who object to how they behave may blog about them, there is a boom in private surveillance technologies used by spouses who suspect infidelity. The only reason there is private information for the government to ask for is because we have volunteered it already to corporate third parties.