For weeks, leaker-at-large Edward Snowden has been attacked by many in the progressive punditocracy on the charge that he is no Daniel Ellsberg.
Now, finally, someone who speaks with authority has come forward to say it isn't so.
It is Ellsberg himself.
The patron saint of all leakers, who in 1971 famously revealed the secret Pentagon Papers, just wrote a Washington Post op-ed explaining why critics are wrong to suggest Snowden didn't have the guts to stay and fight as Ellsberg did. Surprisingly, even Ellsberg has missed the essential difference between what he did and what Snowden did this year by leaking the secret documents revealing the National Security Agency's high-tech communications data collections. We'll get to that -- but let's start with Ellsberg's words.
"Many people compare Edward Snowden to me unfavorably for leaving the country and seeking asylum, rather than facing trial as I did," Ellsberg wrote. "I don't agree. The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago." The Pentagon Papers described the secret history, culled from decades of secret documents, of how U.S. troops got incrementally inserted into the Vietnam War during the presidencies of Nixon's predecessors.
Ellsberg, an elite defense analyst who worked on the project, saw decades of memos that told truths quite the opposite of what Americans had been told. He leaked a set of the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. When a court injunction barred the newspaper from publishing, Ellsberg leaked a copy to The Washington Post.
After another court injunction, Ellsberg and his wife, Patricia, went into hiding for 13 days -- "quite like Snowden's in flying to Hong Kong," Ellsberg wrote -- to arrange for other chapters to be given to other newspapers. Like Snowden, Ellsberg also became a "fugitive from justice," he wrote, adding: "I surrendered to arrest in Boston, having given out my last copies of the papers the night before."
Here I can add a bit of personal insight, because, as Newsday's young Washington correspondent, I'm the one who got those last Pentagon Papers chapters. Looking back, while the suspicion between the Nixon White House and journalists was intense, the way I got Newsday's two chapters was quaintly clandestine. All cloak and no dagger.
I'd flown to Boston, conveyed Newsday's interest in the Pentagon Papers to Ellsberg's associates, and returned to Washington. Days later, a fellow who identified himself as "Sam Adams" telephoned Newsday with instructions to go to Boston on a specific flight. At Logan Airport, I was paged. At the information desk, a young man I'd never met called my first name, led me up an escalator, handed me an orange slip of paper with a description of a bright green plastic shopping bag that was on a chair downstairs. He vanished. I found the bag: Inside were photocopies of two unpublished chapters of the Pentagon Papers. Mission accomplished.
Several days later, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government failed to prove a national security danger warranting prior restraint of publication. Eventually, the charges against Ellsberg were dismissed after disclosures that Richard Nixon's White House sent burglars to break into the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, seeking information they could use against Ellsberg.
In his op-ed published Monday, Ellsberg wrote about why it was wrong to compare his case and Snowden's. He wrote that after his own arrest, "I was released on personal recognizance bond the same day. ... (And) for the whole two years I was under indictment, I was free to speak to the media and at rallies and public lectures." But, he wrote, Snowden couldn't do that today. "There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, (the Army private accused of leaking secret documents to WikiLeaks), incommunicado."
Ellsberg is quite right in that. But oddly, he never mentioned the one overriding difference between his case and Snowden's: The documents Ellsberg leaked were history -- revelations of decisions by Nixon's predecessors. Documents Snowden has leaked concern current events -- revelations of ongoing secret NSA operations intended to keep Americans safe tomorrow in an age of global terrorism.
To grasp what that distinction means to us today, consider the evolutionary wisdom of Erwin S. Griswold. As Nixon's solicitor general, he argued to the Supreme Court that publication of those old Pentagon Papers secrets would endanger America's security. But 20 years later, Griswold conceded in The New York Times: "In hindsight, it is clear to me that no harm was done by publication of the Pentagon Papers."
Now we must ask: Twenty years from now, can even Snowden or Ellsberg be 100 percent certain that no harm will have been done by publication in 2013 of the NSA papers? While I'm not certain of my own answer to that, I really don't want to entrust my family's safety to Snowden's best guess.