Writing in today’s Washington Post, Daniel Ellsberg comes to the defense of Edward Snowden. His op-ed has evidently come as a shock to many people. For days, scores of commentators in print, TV, and radio have argued that when Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, he acted differently than young Snowden. After all, they point out, Ellsberg stayed in the United States, faced the music and a major trial, and did not go into exile.
This is only partially correct. Unlike Snowden, Ellsberg at first did not make it known publicly that he was the man responsible for giving The New York Times the Pentagon Papers. By doing so, he was escaping the eventual indictment he faced for violating the Espionage Act, for the act of theft and conspiracy in releasing them. (His trial was eventually dismissed in 1973, when the court was presented evidence of governmental misconduct, including illegal wiretapping.)
Ellsberg, most people forget, was outed by the late journalist Sidney Zion, who breached the trust of the journalist fraternity by calling a friend’s radio talk show and informing the listening audience that Ellsberg was the one who had given the papers to the Times.
As for Ellsberg, he says he did the same as Snowden — going underground with his wife for two weeks, in order, he writes, “to elude surveillance while I was arranging – with the crucial help of others still unknown to the FBI — to distribute the Pentagon Papers sequentially to 17 other newspapers.” He defied an arrest order for three days, therefore making him, supposedly, “like Snowden, a ‘fugitive from justice.’”
There is, however, a vast difference between defying an arrest order for three days before surrendering to the court in Boston, having given out the last copies of the Pentagon Papers the day before, and what Snowden did. Snowden is not surrendering and returning to the United States; instead, he is seeking asylum in either Nicaragua or Venezuela, both countries having offered to take him in on his terms. By seeking sanctuary in leftist authoritarian regimes that have scant regard for press freedom or civil liberties, Snowden has made it quite clear that his motives are anything but libertarian.
Secondly, Ellsberg argues that in Nixon’s time, when he and the Left daily castigated the country as near fascist, the country was freer than it is today. Forgetting their hatred and disdain for the Nixon administration, Ellsberg writes that after he was indicted, he was freed on bond and was “free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures.” Considering himself part of a “movement against an ongoing war,” he stresses that he did not want to leave the country, and that such a step never crossed his mind.
According to Ellsberg, Snowden did not have the choice he had in the ’70s. Now, he argues, had Snowden stayed in the United States, he would be denied bail and held in prison incommunicado, like Bradley Manning. (Manning, of course, is in a military prison and is subject to different rules than Snowden would be.)
Ellsberg then writes “Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong.” That statement simply is mind-boggling. Since when is one’s private view of actions taken a defense against an indictment for committing a crime? Recall that Alger Hiss claimed innocence despite proof of his guilt, and that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg did the same, and their defenders today rationalize their acts — since guilt by now has been proven and the damage they did established — as being understandable since they did it for good motives!