Was Ellsberg justified?

I wrote about the interesting Intelligence Squared debate on Edward Snowden in “Was Snowden justified?” Video of the debate is posted at the link. A transcript of the debate is posted here.

I thought the debate was interesting in part because it revealed the weakness of the arguments in favor of Snowden by Ben Wizner, a legal adviser to Snowden and an authoritative source on his case, such as it is. Wizner asserts, for example, that Snowden himself hadn’t revealed any confidential documents. He had merely served as the conduit for their dissemination to such high minded journalists as Glenn Greenwald, who had exercised their independent judgment in weighing the public interest in disclosure versus the public interest in confidentiality: “Edward Snowden is justified because he provided to journalists and through them to us information that we had a right to know and that we had a need to know.” (Daniel Ellsberg makes this point even more strongly than Wizner.) If that doesn’t set your mind at ease, that’s your problem.

I also enjoyed listening to Andy McCarthy make the case against Snowden in such unfriendly territory. He maintains his composure and good humor while explaining Snowden’s wrongdoing. On the merits, I think he makes the stronger case, but Andy needed to move for a change of venue to have a fighting chance on the outcome of the debate.

Daniel Ellsberg’s presence on Snowden’s side of the debate was interesting in itself. Ellsberg is of course the guy who stole the Pentagon history of the Vietnam War from RAND (where he had worked on the history) and disseminated it to the New York Times et al. in 1971. The history is what is known as the Pentagon Papers. In his brilliant book Necessary Secrets, published in 2010, Gabriel Schoenfeld calls Ellberg’s theft “the most consequential leak in American history.” Snowden’s theft may have eclipsed Ellsberg’s, but Schoenfeld’s observation was inarguably true in 2010.

Schoenfeld writes: “The political and legal extravaganza Ellsberg set in motion marked a turning point in American attitudes toward secrecy.” We can see the salience of this observation in the Snowden debate.

Wizner introduces Ellsberg as a genuine American hero. James Woolsey, Andy’s debate partner, even concurs in the righteousness of Ellsberg’s misconduct in the course of the debate. Woolsey’s concurrence shows how deeply the celebration of Ellsberg’s misconduct has evolved into conventional wisdom. But inviting Ellsberg to weigh in on the propriety of Snowden’s misconduct is a little like asking Creepy Karpis to assess whether John Dillinger was justified.

For those who need a refresher course on the case, as I would guess almost all of us do, I urge readers to check out Schoenfeld’s National Affairs essay “Rethinking the Pentagon Papers,” essentially excerpted from chapter 9 of Schoenfeld’s book. The 47 volumes of the Pentagon Papers included 3,000 pages of history and 4,000 pages of documents, all of which had been classified top secret. Formally titled History of U.S. Decision-Making on Vietnam Policy, the 47 volumes were the result of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s commission providing for the preparation of such a history.

The history documented American political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, stopping short of the inauguration of Richard Nixon in January 1969. The 47 volumes were delivered to then Secretary Defense Clark Clifford just before Nixon’s inauguration.

Though he had served in the Pentagon and supported the war, Ellsberg’s thinking had evolved in a direction with which we have all become familiar, if not personally, then perhaps from a review of John Kerry’s career. Ellsberg took the view that the Pentagon Papers constituted “documentation of crimes: war crimes, crimes against the peace, mass murder.”

Ellsberg wasn’t talking about the Communists, of course, he was talking about us: “In terms of the UN charter and our own avowed ideals, [Vietnam] was a war of foreign aggression, American aggression.”

It should be noted that the Pentagon Papers did not directly address or expose any aspect of Nixon’s conduct of the war. Whatever the Nixon administration’s motives for seeking to prevent the publication of the Times’s account of the Pentagon Papers, it was not to prevent the exposure of its own alleged wrongdoing.

Ellsberg says in his opening statement: “I believe that I had been mistaken earlier to keep silent about what I knew to be lies by my president, Lyndon Johnson, and later the president Richard Nixon, for whom I’d also worked, about what they were doing, what was happening, what the costs were, what the prospects were in Vietnam.” The Pentagon Papers, however — forgive me for repeating myself — did not bear on Nixon’s conduct of the war.

Intelligence Squared would do a service hosting a debate on the question whether Ellsberg was justified. Ellsberg could even be invited to argue his own case, as he does in the Snowden debate. Perhaps Schoenfeld might be persuaded to appear.

Some memories would be jogged. Some history would be learned. Some old wounds would be reopened. Some conventional wisdom would be unsettled. Some historical perspective would be added to the Snowden debacle.

Responses