Daniel Ellsberg: Edward Snowden Is a Hero and We Need More Whistleblowers

Daniel Ellsberg says that the machinery of our democratic government is broken and we need whistleblowers.

Clockwise from topleft: Getty; AP (2)

I’m just back home from the first day of the Bradley Manning trial, and a rally for him on Saturday. I think there has not been a more significant or helpful leak or unauthorized disclosure in American history ever than what Edward Snowden shared with the Guardian about the NSA—and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers.

Bradley Manning, who put out the largest volume, simply did not have access to material of this degree of significance—although he did have daily access to material that was top secret or even higher, communications intelligence. He didn’t choose to disclose any of that highly classified material–what he shared was secret or less. I was frankly surprised there was so much evidence of criminality of the U.S. government’s in Manning’s secret material–I thought that would have been a higher level of classification. But apparently ordering people to be turned over to Iraqis knowing they would be tortured was so routine it didn’t require higher classification. And then when this was reported by American troops in over 100 different instances, in each case an illegal order was given to them: “no additional investigation.” That’s an illegal order. Under the Geneva Convention, not only can we not torture, but we cannot hand over anyone to another party we might expect to torture them. And if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that torture has occurred, there must be an investigation, so the orders not to investigate were clearly illegal. And that has not been prosecuted or investigated since Bradley Manning revealed it—that is a criminality that goes right up to the commander-in-chief, and that’s only at the secret level.

Bradley Manning had clearance not only for secret material but higher than top secret, namely communications intelligence such as Snowden has just revealed. He did not choose to reveal anything higher than secret. Snowden made the point that Manning put out so much material [700,000 documents] that he presumably did not read all of it, or even most of it—and that is a distinction. But in fact, as Manning testified, he made a definite decision not to put out material that was higher than secret, not even what is called limited distribution or no distribution—he did not put out any such material, and so he assumed that what he was putting out was very unlikely to harm Americans or anybody. He knew that what he did put out revealed a surprising amount of criminality as well as a huge amount of civilian casualties that had not been reported.

Manning worked in a SCIF—sensitive compartmented information facility—a facility that is guarded enough and secure enough to deal with information higher than top secret. That’s where he worked. So he was very discriminate in choosing only to out secret information.

That was also true for me. All the material I put out was top secret. I had read it all, and had made the judgment that it needed to be put out, it deserved to be put out, and would not harm Americans or anyone else. And that judgment—which could have been wrong—was validated later. They were never able to show that anybody had been harmed, just as three years later they have not been able to show any harm from Bradley Manning’s secret material.

I did not put out anything higher than top secret. But the system that Snowden showed—PRISM and BLARNEY and the Verizon vacuuming up of all metadata, so called—that didn’t exist when I was at RAND. There was no email, there were no personal computers, there was no fax, there was no credit card. So they couldn’t get all that stuff then. If that had existed in 1964 or 1965 I would have had access to it, actually—not probably to the operations but to the data available for that; I had the clearance for it. I certainly would have put that out, just as Snowden has done, because it’s clearly unconstitutional behavior and I’m referring here to the fact that they were gathering digital data on every single American with an electronic device on any kind—collecting, storing, analyzing, and retaining data secretly on every American who has a device. I would have put that out even though I would have expected to go to prison for life. I’m not a journalist, though, but I would have put it out even though I accept the legitimacy of the law—18 USC § 798—that prohibits putting out that material. I generally support that law and I did not put out any such material 40 years ago—there was nothing I knew at that time that I would have put out.

As Snowden said, there’s lots of information that he did not put out, so he’s been discriminating. Manning was also discriminating, although in his case he chose to put out secret info that he had not read. And in retrospect, Manning was right to do so. If he had asked me about doing that before he did it, I would have recommended that he not do that. And I would not have done it—material that I haven’t read—but I would have been wrong. Because three years later, we can say whatever risk there was in doing that, no actual harm was done to individuals—and the benefit of putting that out was much more than I would have expected. He did the right thing in my opinion.

Snowden, too. The information about unconstitutional activity that he put out could only be reversed or stopped if the public knows about it, and there was absolutely no way for them or most members of Congress to learn about it without him putting it out. Indeed, anyone in his position, with his access, recognizing as he did that this was unconstitutional as this blatantly is, should have done what he did.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty rare to do what you should do when it involves a major personal sacrifice, and he knows very well that he’s at great risk, many different kinds of risk, right now in addition to being separated from his partner, his family, and his job. (He was getting paid a lot more than I ever got paid. I had a good job too in those days.)

He knows that he is not beyond the reach of the executive branch of the U.S. government anywhere in the world. He knows that better than I did 40 years ago. My wife at that time was worried that the CIA might harm me, and I told her at the time, “No, don’t worry. I don’t think they do that to Americans.”

Wrong. I was wrong then, and would be now. The White House sent people with orders “to incapacitate me totally.” I was subject to a White House death squad that fortunately backed off and aborted the mission. Now we have a president, Barack Obama, who openly proclaims the right to execute, to kill, to murder any American citizen he wants if he can’t arrest them. But he’s already done it to Americans he could have arrested.

As Snowden says, “I could be rendered.” And of course he’s talking about rendition, which is a euphemism for kidnapping. He could be kidnapped, he could be sent to Guantánamo, he could be executed. Certainly slandered. You can count on that. A lot of people will surely call him a traitor, but they’re mistaken. That’s an extremely unpleasant experience for someone who knows he’s a patriot, who’s certainly a patriot from what I know so far. Someone willing to sacrifice and die for his country.

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That’s something that’s also true of Bradley Manning, and it’s something I’ve waited a long time to encounter. I have been saying now for three years that I identify with Bradley Manning, though he got there first. He arrived at his decision at 22, while it took me until I was 40, or 39.

But I identify even more with Snowden, just from what I’ve seen in the last few hours [since the Guardian published his name and its interview with him earlier Sunday]. He’s older, he had higher access, he had a better salary than Manning. His life was like mine. It’s very easy for me to identify with his choice, his decision, his performance.

I very much hope that Manning, and Snowden, inspire others. Snowden said he admired Manning, though he did distinguish his choice not to put out anything he had not read and selected. But of course I’m sure he understands that Manning would not have put out NSA special intelligence that he hadn’t read—actually he didn’t put out NSA material that he had read.

There is a lot that is legitimately secret, and if you haven’t read it you couldn’t know. But a tremendous amount is not legitimately secret. Of about 7,000 pages, I withheld about 3,000 pages that dealt with negotiations because I didn’t want to interfere with negotiations. I wanted to interfere with the war. I put out 4,000 pages of secret material, high-level documents by the joint chief of staff, the secretary of defense, the White House, the CIA. Not one paragraph of those 4,000 pages was ever shown by the government to have done any harm on its release. Not 1 percent. Zero.

How much deserves classification? I won’t say zero. One expert estimated that about 5 percent of what got classified deserved to be at the time. After two or three years, less than 1 percent of the material that was classified deserved continued classification. The real problem with classification is that an enormous amount is classified that needs to be public.

What Snowden has put out has two characteristics. One, the public desperately needs to know what has been done over the last dozen years by the last two administrations—or perhaps much longer than that—so they can debate it, have oversight, limit it, so they can rein it in.

It’s not just that secrets creates an enormous potential for abuse, blackmail, influence—knowing the sources of all journalists, leaked or not, influencing Congress by knowing every detail of their private life—over time that’s almost certain to be abused. People the administration doesn’t like can be audited by the IRS, to name a kind of current example. I’ll say that not as a fan of the Tea Party, but I’ll certainly defend their right not to be abused by the IRS because some agency, I won’t say the White House, disapproves.

The very nature of this system is an abuse. It isn’t just that it can be abused, which is true. Its very existence is an abuse. It’s a violation of the Constitution. The president says that it’s legal based on congressional decisions made in total ignorance of the scale of the program, but Congress cannot repeal the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The executive has simply been ignoring that. The idea of a blanket warrant is a mockery of the Fourth Amendment requirement of probable cause.

In short, the machinery of our democratic government has entirely broken down. There is no effective congressional oversight, as we can see by the acquiescence of the intelligence and judiciary committees. There is no oversight. The president has said the courts review this. He’s referring to the FISA court, which has reviewed tens of thousands of requests, and refused about six. It’s a mockery to say we have three branches of government that have endorsed this. Strictly speaking, Congress has never approved this and it's never been asked—only the intelligence committee's top two.

When they were doing this under Bush for four years before The New York Times exposed it, the congressional leaders of both parties were complicit in clear-cut criminality and that could be used to blackmail them, in effect. The threat of exposing them could have had great leverage, and I’m sure it was used as a matter of fact.

Imagine, for instance: We had a governor of New York who was looking into the subprime mortgages, in D.C. testifying on that. He was also committing a crime, going to a prostitute that evening. Let me give you a guess here that that wasn’t the first time they’d known about it, but when it was convenient, he was no longer governor of New York.

Mark Sanford: His staff did not know he was in Argentina. Let me give you a little guess here: The NSA knew exactly where he was. Of course they knew. Did he not communicate with his mistress? They knew everything—they knew when he bought a ticket, what flight he was on, who he met at the airplane, where he was staying. They knew everything his wife didn’t know. His staff didn’t know, and he was running for office. Do you think they couldn’t use that information if they wanted to? How about having the information on very member of Congress, every governor, every mayor, every journalist?

They do have it.

The question is, can you have a democracy, dissent, informed opposition, an informed public—informed by media—under these conditions?

You can’t have it for long. You either somehow get effective oversight of the NSA, the CIA, or you have the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany. And their secret police—which we have now basically. The CIA, when they acted in a police function in this country against me by helping in the Watergate burglaries and of my psychiatrist’s office, they were breaking their charter. That was one of the counts of Nixon’s impeachment. That’s legal now under the Patriot Act. Our military was forbidden to take part in police activities in this country under the Posse Comitatus Act that goes back to Reconstruction—that’s essentially gone.

Everything that Nixon did against me—burglarizing my doctor’s office and warrantless wiretaps to get information to blackmail me into silence and using the CIA to get a psychological profile on me to reveal my vulnerabilities to coercion or manipulation and finally sending a dozen CIA assets with orders to incapacitate me totally—all of that is now allegedly legal. That doesn’t make it constitutional, by the way—it obviously violates the Bill of Rights. I used to say under Bush the attempt to incapacitate me, “that one is not yet legal.” But Obama says it is. He says he has the right to do that anywhere in the world and that includes the United States. Now Congress hasn’t exactly endorsed that, but they haven’t contradicted it either. Same for detention without charges under the National Defense Authorization Act.

Under the Patriot Act, the CIA is also a police force domestically. A secret police force. Every aspect of the CIA—they won’t even confirm what they’re doing. The president will not confirm that the CIA uses drones. Now if there’s anybody who reads newspapers who doesn’t know that fact, I don’t know who it would be—they shouldn’t be voting, though they have the right to. But the president won’t confirm it. It’s secret. And if they use them in this country there’s nothing now to stop them from doing it, and it will still be secret.

I’m glad they wiretap the mafia. I’m glad they wiretap people reasonably suspected of being terrorists. Fine. They can certainly get warrants for that. They can get any warrant they want. But scooping up all the digital data of everyone in the country—it’s ridiculous to call that constitutional. That’s a different form of government than what we had 200 years ago. What it is is East Germany without the mass detentions.

It isn’t millions of Americans, it’s hundreds of millions of Americans they collect on. As William Binney said, that’s 280 million Americans—everybody except infants in cribs or people in hospices, everybody who has a device, including 7-year-olds. They’re not just collected once, they have multiple phone lines, email accounts, and every one of them is collected.

I definitely have a new hero in Edward Snowden, the first one since Bradley Manning, and I’m glad it didn’t take another 40 years. People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration. And people who hate what I did, can hate.

As told to Harry Siegel.