One Era’s Traitor Is Another Era’s Whistle-Blower

How the media covered national-security leaks in Daniel Ellsberg's day.

The Guardian via Getty Images
The Guardian via Getty Images

When the Guardian named Edward Snowden as the source behind a series of leaks last week on National Security Agency surveillance programs, the backlash was swift. In a rare show of bipartisanship, several members of Congress — including House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton — labeled the 29-year-old contractor a traitor. The Guardian‘s profile, meanwhile, characterized Snowden as "one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers" and compared him to Daniel Ellsberg.

The Guardian isn’t alone in comparing Snowden to Ellsberg, who leaked a secret Pentagon-authored history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, to reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971. Over the past 40 years, Ellsberg has defended his actions, saying that he hoped the documents would bring an end to the conflict. His conscientious objection to the war mirrors Snowden’s stated reasons for leaking the NSA documents. As he told the Guardian, "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

But the reaction to Snowden’s leaks is in many ways different than the response Ellsberg received when the Pentagon Papers were published four decades ago. Then, politicians went out of their way to be associated with Ellsberg’s disclosures. Sen. George McGovern, who was running for president at the time, told the New York Times that he suggested Ellsberg make the Pentagon Papers available to "a respectable newspaper" and that he did not release the Pentagon Papers himself because it would have seemed too political, according to an Aug. 1, 1971 article. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s muted criticism was that he hoped the "man who leaked the report will be forgotten." Retired Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did write in an editorial that Ellsberg had committed a "traitorous act" and "didn’t know what he was doing to the security of the United States." But while that language may be par for the course today, it was an unusually scathing indictment at the time.

When Ellsberg did face harsh criticism, it was often personal in nature. Consider this July 23, 1971 letter to the editor of LIFE magazine on Ellsberg, who had served in Vietnam as a State Department official:

This Ellsberg is too much to believe! He was so bloodthirsty in Vietnam that, though a civilian, he just had to grab up a rifle. Then, he was so concerned with Vietnamese welfare that he stole his own government’s documents while a trusted employee! I have seen this kind of instability in women’s bridge club politics.

Ellsberg was also accused of being a narcissist in search of a book deal — and within months of the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, he had sold a manuscript about the Vietnam War that he had reportedly been shopping to publishers for years. It was hard to deny his rising profile. "Certainly Ellsberg himself has gained a personal celebrity, or notoriety, that some critics argue was an original motivation. Public fame will no doubt continue to provide him platforms from which he can press his own ideas," Walter Pincus, a stalwart defender of Ellsberg, wrote in New York Magazine on Aug. 16, 1971.

These criticisms hounded Ellsberg. A year after the leaks, a syndicated editorial called Ellsberg "the Ph.D. enfant terrible" whose actions "assured [him] a niche in the pantheon of radical chic." One paper scoffed at Ellsberg’s appearance at the 1972 Republican National Convention: "Apparently still after the limelight he sought so avidly in the Pentagon Papers case, Dr. Ellsberg claimed new sensations to reveal."

The Nixon administration also tried to discredit Ellsberg on a personal level. Nixon’s private investigation squad, the "Plumbers," broke into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in search of juicy details of his private life; they later testified to a grand jury about Ellsberg cavorting "with females of foreign birth and extraction," which constituted "a danger signal to anybody in the counter-espionage field," and engaging in "some rather bizarre sexual practices."

Snowden has already been the target of personal attacks as well. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has called him "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," while New York Times columnist David Brooks has characterized Snowden as a loner representative of the "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."

Still, Ellsberg enjoyed considerable public support for his actions — both in and out of government. Sen. Bob Dole, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, worried that prosecuting Ellsberg "could be politically harmful to the Republican Party," and a government attorney told TIME, "what the Government has done in this case is a terribly unpopular thing. We are vilified on all sides." The case against Ellsberg was eventually thrown out after the Plumbers’ burglary and illegal government wiretapping were revealed — actions that offended "a sense of justice" and "incurably infected the prosecution of this case," the judge in the Pentagon Papers case declared in 1973.

Today, the fault for the leak — and its potential consequences — falls to the leaker. In Brooks’s column, he writes that Snowden "betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more."

Forty years ago, however, that criticism was leveled not so much at Ellsberg but at the New York Times. "When publishers and editors decide on their own what security laws to obey," Sen. Barry Goldwater said in response to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, "it puts them in the same category as those radicals who foment civil and criminal disobedience of laws they disagree with for moral reasons." Rep. Samuel Stratton called the New York Times and Washington Post "un-American" for publishing the report. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, rushed a court case to halt the serialized publication of Pentagon Paper reports to the Supreme Court, which decided that the newspapers could continue publishing the stories because the government could not demonstrate that disclosing the Defense Department’s study would pose "grave and irreparable" danger to national security. But in his dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "I strongly urge, and sincerely hope, that these two newspapers will be fully aware of their ultimate responsibilities to the United States of America." If the publication of the Pentagon Papers resulted in the deaths of soldiers, damage to U.S. alliances, the "prolongation of the war and of further delay in the freeing of United States prisoners, then the Nation’s people will know where the responsibility for these sad consequences rests," he added.

The critique echoed inside the publishing world as well. A LIFE magazine staff editorial highlighted the government’s right to challenge the New York Times and Washington Post:

In the case of the Pentagon papers, the government has the ultimate remedy of prosecuting the Times, as well as other newspapers that have published portions of the documents, if it can prove that the publication did endanger national security. On the basis of the first three lengthy instalments [sic] that appeared in the Times and the articles published elsewhere, the disclosure of the material does not appear to constitute such a threat.

Speaking at the 1971 meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Martin Hayden, editor of the Detroit News, was less sanguine. "If every pamphleteer could publish a plan of a secret submarine or a list of foreign agents abroad, obtained from any peddler of secrets, I don’t think the public would stand for it," he told conference. He was "scared to death," he continued, that the further publication of leaks would prompt Congress "to regulate or control the press."

This time around, few lawmakers are blaming the press for the NSA leaks. (Branding a British paper "un-American" just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Rep. Mike Rogers’s criticism of the Guardian‘s reporting on the NSA’s surveillance apparatus was simply that while journalist Glenn Greenwald "says that he’s got it all and now is an expert on the program," he "doesn’t have a clue how this thing works. Neither did the person who released just enough information to be literally dangerous." Rep. Peter King is alone, so far, in calling for the prosecution of the reporters involved in breaking the story, telling CNN’s Anderson Cooper, "On something of this magnitude, there is an obligation both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security." While the Justice Department is reportedly weighing its options for how best to extradite and prosecute Snowden, there have been no reports of a potential case against the Guardian.

As for Ellsberg himself, he’s come out as an admirer of Snowden: "I think there has not been a more significant or helpful leak or unauthorized disclosure in American history ever … and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers," he told the Daily Beast. The open question is how, in a post-9/11 climate that differs in many ways from the Vietnam era, Snowden’s fate may diverge from Ellsberg’s. 

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola