They were both whistleblowers—Edward Snowden in 2013 and Daniel Ellsberg in 1971—both having disclosed classified information to the public. But there is one huge difference between the two.
Snowden, a thirty-year-old contractor for the super-secret National Security Agency, went to Hong Kong, where he unloaded a damaging flood of U.S. government information about a massive surveillance program that he considered wrong, immoral and unacceptable.
Ellsberg, who had worked for the Rand Corporation, was deeply disturbed in the early 1970s by a secret Pentagon history of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was convinced that if this history were made known to a number of senators, they would take dramatic action to end the war, perhaps by cutting off funding. But the senators refused to play their designated roles in Ellsberg’s scheme, which was fraught with controversy—the history was, after all, top secret. Undaunted, Ellsberg then turned to the New York Times (and later to eighteen other newspapers around the country), which, after serious internal deliberations, decided to publish the secret history.
In other words, Snowden dropped his explosive leak about the secret American surveillance program while in a foreign country; Ellsberg did his leaking in the United States. He kept it within the “family”—or tried to.
There was another difference, too. Snowden made no effort, so far as we know, to register his personal misgivings about government surveillance to U.S. officials while he was still working for the NSA. Apparently, though, he did register his misgivings with a few reporters; and when he was ready, in Hong Kong, to go public, he cooperated first with a columnist for the British newspaper, the Guardian, and then with a reporter for the Washington Post. Ellsberg seemed much more anguished about his decision to publicize the Pentagon history of the Vietnam War. He went first to the U.S. Senate, trying in this way to remain within the broad definition of the U.S. government, before turning in frustration to the nation’s most prestigious newspaper.
These differences notwithstanding, the whistle blowing of Snowden and Ellsberg brought embarrassment and shame on the U.S. government. Ellsberg’s leak complicated President Nixon’s efforts to open an historic dialogue with Communist China, and it led indirectly to the Watergate scandal that resulted in Nixon’s unprecedented resignation from office, one step ahead of almost certain impeachment. Snowden’s leak has severely complicated U.S. relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. After fleeing from Hong Kong, Snowden went directly to Moscow, where he assumed he’d be catching a quick flight to Cuba and then on to Bolivia, or if not Bolivia, Venezuela or Nicaragua. But he lacked proper travel papers, and his travel plans went wildly awry.
For three uncertain weeks, Snowden went into hiding at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. At the start of this unplanned vacation, Putin seemed to derive a special pleasure poking Obama in the eye, gleefully proclaiming that if he wished, Snowden could remain in Russia so long as he stopped leaking American secrets. When it dawned on Snowden that he was having trouble going anywhere, he held a kind of news conference last week, at which he seemed to be asking for Russian asylum, at least until he could get a better offer from his Latin-American suitors.
Now the Russians are saddled with a human firecracker capable of disrupting the awkward Obama-Putin courtship. The Russians haven’t offered asylum to Snowden, but the NSA leaker is still in Moscow; and he is beginning to be a somewhat unmanageable problem in U.S.-Russian relations.
Last week, on a phone call with Obama, Putin made clear that he would be happy to see Snowden leave. What might have seemed like fun and games a month ago in the Kremlin has now become a serious and totally unnecessary roadblock to better relations. From Congress has come angry criticism of Putin’s Russia, and Obama’s recent efforts to improve relations with his erratic Russian counterpart have clearly hit a bumpy road. Obama is supposed to visit Moscow in September. Will he? Can he? Not, it would seem, while Putin continues to follow an authoritarian, antidemocratic campaign in Russia; and not while Russia refuses to hand Snowden over to the U.S. government, which is Washington’s basic demand.
Whistleblowing has always had a romantic face, the small guy fighting the big government, the dashing truth teller spilling the embarrassing beans about his government’s allegedly unlawful activities. Does Snowden represent little-guy ethical morality? Is he the hero of our day? I doubt it.
While he may not be a traitor, as many have stated, he did have a contract with the government that explicitly forbade him—the contractor—from disclosing what he did and what he knew. If he found his job, which paid him a very adequate salary, to be so distasteful, he could always have quit and gone to dental school.
What Snowden did was wrong and harmful to the U.S. government, despite his revelations about the highly questionable surveillance program. What Ellsberg did was wrong but understandable: he served in Vietnam, studied the war, and he, like millions of other Americans, came to disagree with his country’s role in the war. The Pentagon study he released contained nothing new to anyone who had been reading the papers at the time.