Daniel Ellsberg: Snowden Kept His Oath Better Than Anyone in the NSA

Daniel Ellsberg, releaser of the Pentagon Papers Daniel Ellsberg, releaser of the Pentagon Papers Flickr user Steve Rhodes

Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated leaker of the Pentagon Papers, said in a conversation last weekend with National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden that every human sometimes bites their tongue when they witness something that they know to be wrong—and blood often flows as a result. Due in part to lies during the Vietnam War, he said, millions of people were needlessly killed. At home, tobacco executives successfully hid the cancerous nature of their products. More recently, as GM customers died in their cars, the company kept mum about a defect. 

The standard he'd like to see set instead? "Snowden was the one person in the fucking NSA who did what he absolutely should have done," he said. "How many people should've done what you did! We all took the same oath to protect and defend the Constitution. There are people who violate it all the time. There are people who are against it, like Cheney and some others. But when it comes to upholding that oath, no one in the U.S. military services, including the commander in chief, has fulfilled her oath to defend and support the Constitution like Chelsea Manning. And no one in the executive branch, or in any branch, has fulfilled the oath to uphold and protect the Constitution as well as you, so thank you."

Snowden and Manning should inspire other Americans to speak out upon seeing what they know to be wrong, Ellsberg argued, even when doing so entails personal sacrifice. The remarks came at the end of a monologue during Hope X, a hacker conference in New York City. The whole part on "civic courage" is worth a read.

Ellsberg begins by addressing Snowden:

I was struck by something you said in Vanity Fair, which was that every one of us has seen things that are wrong, that should be known, that should be exposed, and we have turned our eyes away because we were intimidated. I believe that's true of every human on earth. There are times when they bite their tongues or keep their mouths shut because to reveal it would lose a relationship, or a job, or a career. Then you said, but there comes a time when the level of wrongness or inhumanity is so great that you have to cross over that line. 

I thought, that's Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who did that. How many others? Most people never do reach that line. They never do reach a point where they decide to risk their own status, their relationships, their job. And many of them have been tested on things like the continuation of a wrongful war; hundreds of thousands of lives, 500,000 lives lost each year in the case of tobacco. And only two people spoke out. Look at GM. It's a only a handful, but it's striking how they covered it up. How many people at GM knew that lives were being lost? Who spoke out? Nobody, I don't think so. 

What I hope, Ed, is that you will inspire more people to take even significant risks ... there will always be risks. And the willingness to take that risk, for civilians, is very rare. 

As you may know, it was Bismarck of all people who said courage on the battlefield is very common in our country, Prussia at that point. But civil courage is another matter, it's very rare. Before Manning and Snowden I'd almost given up on it.

You're an example of it.

And Manning. He got a lot of attention, but he didn't get the effect in this country, except for getting our troops home from Iraq, that you did. Why? Because I think Manning was showing what we were doing to other people in the Third World. Others. Not us. And in my case, was the effect because of the millions of Vietnamese who were being killed wrongly? Every one of them was wrong. When I read the Pentagon Papers and realized for the first time that from the very beginning we were supporting a French colonial reconquest of a country, which I thought of us un-American, whether it was illegal internationally or not, I saw every death in Vietnam as being unjustified homicide. To me that was murder, mass murder, and I couldn't be part of that anymore. Well, the American people didn't respond, I'm sorry to say, on the whole, to the mass murder, but there were 58,000 Americans in the process of dying then, see. And in your case, Ed, it wasn't so much directly dying, but you exposed what was being done to us. And people are objecting to that.

I think we have to have a different standard, and you show the possibility of it. Your colleagues in NSA, as you said, agreed with you, many of them, that this is wrong. But I have a mortgage, I have a marriage, I have children to send to college. And that was enough. Even though we're talking about this massive intrusion. It's a new world, basically, that people need to know about. So it shouldn't be only you. And I would hope that some of your colleagues, who I would suspect—from my experience, if you were in a room with your former colleagues now, I would expect them to leave that room. If you can tell me that a former colleague from NSA has in any way communicated with you to say you've done the right thing, in any way, I would guess there are zero like that, which was my experience at the Rand Corporation. You lose every friend you have who has a clearance. And that's all your friends. 

But you're not made of sugar, as you've shown. I saw you say yesterday, "If I were in chains at Guantanamo, I could live with that." Well, that doesn't surprise me, Ed. That's the person I find you to be. It's a pretty unusual statement, isn't it? Well, let's make it a little less unusual. You went in the special forces and had your legs broken, didn't go over. I used my Marine training in Vietnam as a civilian. I'd been a Marine company commander in peacetime. And so I used that training in Vietnam. I saw combat. I walked with troops in combat. There you see courage, physical courage, every minute, every day. People doing the job, going to save their comrades. That kind of courage is marvelous. As a marine once said at Iwo Jima, uncommon courage was a common virtue. Okay, right. When you're doing it for the commander in chief, for the boss, with the applause of your country–usually you don't get the applause, most of it is anonymous, but you know they would approve you if they knew of it, and would hold you accountable if you didn't do it.

We should have a different standard for our civilian officials, as well as, I don't know if you regarded yourself as an official, but also for the middle level person.

It shouldn't be that you are the extraordinary hero that we thank. It should be that we should ask the question of those other people, "What made you think that you could keep this secret for so long? Keep it totally secret, keep your mouth shut?"

A lot of blood has flowed because people bit their tongue and swallowed their whistles, and didn't speak out. And it's time I think that we not prosecute them, but tell them, "That is not the way to preserve a democracy."

"You're not fulfilling your oath."

And I'll just end by saying, people ask, is he a patriot or a traitor? That drives me nuts, the very thought that people could regard you as a traitor. The ignorance of the media and the congresspeople and the other interviewers who raised that question offends me as an American, that they think that it can be traitorous to tell the truth to your fellow countrymen. Here's the standard I would like to see set: "Snowden was the one person in the fucking NSA who did what he absolutely should have done." How many people should've done what you did! I said this about Chelsea when that came out and I say it now. We all took the same oath to protect and defend the Constitution. There are people who violate it all the time. There are people who are against it, like Cheney and some others. But when it comes to upholding that oath, no one in the U.S. military services including the commander in chief has fulfilled her oath to defend and support the Constitution like Chelsea Manning.

And no one in the U.S. executive branch, or in any branch of government, has fulfilled the oath to uphold and protect the Constitution as well as you, so thank you. 

The whole conversation is here:

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.