The Most Famous Whistleblowers on Why They Leaked

A poster of Edward Snowden's face hangs in Berlin in June after a rally. A poster of Edward Snowden's face hangs in Berlin in June after a rally. Bocman1973/Shutterstock.com

America's most famous whistleblowers, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden,talked via video at a New York hacker conference earlier this week. What follows is a condensed transcript highlighting a portion of their exchange on why they each decided to leak and why they identify with one another. The panel was moderated by Trevor Timm of Freedom of the Press Foundation. Unedited video of the whole conversation is on YouTube: 

EDWARD SNOWDEN: To Dan Ellsberg, thank you for everything you've done, for your service both inside the government and outside the government, for everything you've done for our nation, our society. You have given so many so much, and told us the truth about what our government was doing at a time when the truth was very hard to get. And I have to say, I watched a documentary about your life as I was grappling with these issues myself. And it had a deep impact and really shaped my thinking. So thank you for everything that you've done. 

TREVOR TIMM: I was hoping Dan could describe what it felt like the first time he heard about Edward Snowden: his feelings on seeing what he had given the world.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I can tell you exactly what I felt: hope, which had not been in great supply for me .... I felt that when Chelsea Manning was revealed. I used to ask myself, how often do you need a Pentagon Papers, which was a massive disclosure. One document doesn't do it, as Ed knows. They can say, "Well we changed that the next day," or, "That was just some particular little department, some low level person." So what you really need is a mass of stuff, as in the Pentagon Papers, that shows, no, this is what they said the next day and the day after that, and here's the official policy, and so forth. And I waited 40 years to hear that.

So I was losing hope that there would be anybody inside who was willing to risk his or her life and freedom, to put out what needed to be put out. Because if you put out a lot of stuff, technically you have to be something of a specialist to put out a lot of stuff and not be identified. So I was feeling not hopeful that it would come. And then just three years after Manning comes Snowden. So I was feeling that it is possible. 

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You touched on technology. You talked about how people are able to use specialist skills to gather information that's tremendously important to the public. And they're able to publish that and get it around the world before anyone is able to stop it—before they're able to kill the story, shut the public out of government, and divorce us from our democracy. The key to me is that technology empowers dissent. People forget this because they only think about the recent examples. They think about me. They think about Manning. But they forget that technology actually enabled you. People forget that you were in a garage with a Xerox machine. A copy machine might not seem like a killer app to a lot of people. But that enabled you to get this back to the public. And the same Xerox machine that gave you that gave us samizdat back in the former Soviet bloc. Its important to recognize that technology empowers individuals, it empowers voices, it empowers democracy, in a way that can turn one man into a movement or a woman into a world power. And that has fundamentally changed the way we related to our government and the way that our government relates to us.

TREVOR TIMM: This next question is for you, Dan. Often times, Ed's biggest critics invoke your name in a positive way and try to contrast what you did with what Edward did. How does that make you feel? Do you agree or disagree with them? 

DAN ELLSBERG: This bullshit in a way started with Barack Obama. When somebody took the occasion to ask him about Manning, and said, "Didn't Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) do exactly what Ellsberg did?" he could've answered that various ways. What he said was, "Ellsberg's material was classified in a different manner." Well, that was true, in a way. Everything that Manning put out was Secret or less. And everything I put out was Top Secret. That was the difference. In Ed's case, it was all higher than Top Secret, which I earlier would have said shouldn't be put out, until you see what it says. Then you see it's evidence of criminality, and he should not be subject to prosecution for revealing it even though it is higher than top secret. I found that starting in 2010, thanks to Manning and now to you, I'm getting more favorable publicity than in 40 years. Suddenly people who were all for putting me in prison for life say that I'm a good guy, the good whistleblower. 

I've totally rejected this from the beginning. I didn't want to be a foil for showing up badly two people that I totally admired and identified with. There are lots of leakers who are totally anonymous, and I appreciate them. But the difference is that Manning and you clearly felt, as I had 40 years ago, a willingness to put out enough material that could put us in prison for life. When Manning said ... he was willing to go to jail or even be executed ... I said to myself, I have waited 40 years to hear somebody say that. That's the way I felt 40 years ago. And it's taken this long.

And so I immediately felt an identification with him. I couldn't bear to hear me getting good press, from the secretary of state and others, on the grounds that my motives were different. For example, they said Ellsberg just put out information that was historical, three years old at the most recent. Well that's because I didn't have the most recent. If I'd had the current documents I would not have bothered to put out history. My interest was not in setting the record straight. My interest was in helping to end an ongoing war. For that, I would much have preferred to put out current documents, which at that moment I didn't have access to. Even in the White House it was a big secret, what Nixon was really up to, including nuclear threats. I hoped my documents would show a pattern that continued into the present, and I failed. Hardly anybody was willing to extrapolate and say that, well, Ellsberg has shown that four previous presidents lied in the same way, escalated in the same way, made the same kinds of secret threats. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. But it ended before Nixon. I thought maybe they'd figure out that the current president is doing the same. No. It took documents. And I didn't have that. So for years I've been telling people, it's gotta be with documents, even though that increases the risk. Well, people know that basically, but they're not willing to take the risks, I'm sorry to say. 

EDWARD SNOWDEN: You said that you acted not to reveal a specific illegality, but to end a war—basically, to correct failures of policies that were costing lives, that were costing us the future of our country at a critical moment where things could be changed, where we could step back from the brink and enjoy a better society.

And I think people need to remember that these stories that are being published by journalists—the journalists are working together with their editors and their institutions, to really analyze whether these things are in the public interest, whether they will benefit us as a society tomorrow, and not publish things that are just gossip or that don't have a significant justification for going into the public domain.

We not only learned the new truth about our world, that all of our communications are being collected, intercepted, analyzed and stored automatically. That means all of our ideas, thoughts, expressions associations, who we talk to, who we meet, who we love, who we hate, all of these things are now subordinated to the policy of a few guys behind closed doors and we can't hold them to account.

They don't answer to us. They don't even answer to the full body of Congress. There are only eight members in Congress, they're called the Gang of Eight, who get fully briefed on these intelligence programs. Interestingly, the intelligence committees that are supposed to oversee these programs, these guys who have access to classified information, they receive more money—actually, all of them, every single member of this committee—receives money from the top 20 intelligence companies in the U.S. And they receive more money from these companies than any other members in Congress. In fact, a single one of these congressmen, his name is Dutch Ruppersberger, received over $350,000 from these companies alone. That's not all of his donations. That's just from these top 20 companies. 

So when we think about the revelations, we've learned what's really going on, we have the ability to debate, we have the ability to correct this overreach, and we have the ability to protest unconstitutional activity that never should have begun.

But we also have a broader civic understanding of how our government works. We see that our most senior officials in government have been lying under oath. They've been making false statements to Congress, for example, James Clapper. But there are other ones that didn't get as much attention. The solicitor general of the United States, he lied to the Supreme Court, twice, in writing, and it was in The New York Times. This didn't become the front-page news that persists and that we respond to. But it was a direct revelation that came out in the newspaper on June 7. What happened is that the government was using warrantless surveillance to collect evidence to justify warrant applications for warranted surveillance. That's a violation of both the Fourth and the Fifth Amendment. And what's interesting is that they didn't report this to the courts and they didn't report this to the defendants. But they later told the Supreme Court that they were. It turned out that was untrue.

If we don't know this sort of thing, we don't know our government. We have to be able to know not only what they do but how they act in order to know how closely we need to scrutinize their behavior. And if we didn't have whistleblowers like you, like Tom Drake, like everybody else who has come forward at tremendous risk, we would have a less open, less free, and less accountable society. Because of that, I think it's worth taking risks. And it's not just what's illegal. The scandal is what's legal, the unconstitutional activities happening every day. 

(Image via Bocman1973 / Shutterstock.com)

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