Ellsberg on Snowden’s Leak

After 9/11, the principal “liberty” that many Americans seemed to prize most was the “freedom” to go to the shopping mall without having to fear “terrorists.” That attitude gave impetus to the construction of a police-state framework that could crush all the other liberties and freedoms, Daniel Ellsberg warns.

By Daniel Ellsberg

In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden’s release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago. Snowden’s whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an “executive coup” against the U.S. Constitution.

Since 9/11, there has been, at first secretly but increasingly openly, a revocation of the Bill of Rights for which this country fought over 200 years ago. In particular, the Fourth and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which safeguard citizens from unwarranted intrusion by the government into their private lives, have been virtually suspended.

Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

The government claims it has a court warrant under FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] – but that unconstitutionally sweeping warrant is from a secret court, shielded from effective oversight, almost totally deferential to executive requests. As Russell Tice, a former National Security Agency analyst, put it: “It is a kangaroo court with a rubber stamp.”

For the president then to say that there is judicial oversight is nonsense – as is the alleged oversight function of the intelligence committees in Congress. Not for the first time – as with issues of torture, kidnapping, detention, assassination by drones and death squads –they have shown themselves to be thoroughly co-opted by the agencies they supposedly monitor. They are also black holes for information that the public needs to know.

The fact that congressional leaders were “briefed” on this and went along with it — without any open debate, hearings, staff analysis, or any real chance for effective dissent — only shows how broken the system of checks and balances is in this country.

Obviously, the United States is not now a police state. But given the extent of this invasion of people’s privacy, we do have the full electronic and legislative infrastructure of such a state. If, for instance, there was now a war that led to a large-scale anti-war movement – like the one we had against the war in Vietnam – or, more likely, if we suffered one more attack on the scale of 9/11, I fear for our democracy. These powers are extremely dangerous.

There are legitimate reasons for secrecy, and specifically for secrecy about communications intelligence. That’s why Bradley Manning and I – both of whom had access to such intelligence with clearances higher than top-secret – chose not to disclose any information with that classification. And it is why Edward Snowden has committed himself to withhold publication of most of what he might have revealed.

But what is not legitimate is to use a secrecy system to hide programs that are blatantly unconstitutional in their breadth and potential abuse. Neither the President nor Congress as a whole may by themselves revoke the Fourth Amendment – and that’s why what Snowden has revealed so far was secret from the American people.

In 1975, Senator Frank Church spoke of the National Security Agency in these terms: “I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

The dangerous prospect of which he warned was that America’s intelligence gathering capability – which is today beyond any comparison with what existed in his pre-digital era – “at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.”

That has now happened. That is what Snowden has exposed, with official, secret documents. The NSA, FBI and CIA have, with the new digital technology, surveillance powers over our own citizens that the Stasi – the secret police in the former “democratic republic” of East Germany – could scarcely have dreamed of. Snowden reveals that the so-called intelligence community has become the United Stasi of America.

So we have fallen into Senator Church’s abyss. The questions now are whether he was right or wrong that there is no return from it, and whether that means that effective democracy will become impossible. A week ago, I would have found it hard to argue with pessimistic answers to those conclusions.

But with Edward Snowden having put his life on the line to get this information out, quite possibly inspiring others with similar knowledge, conscience and patriotism to show comparable civil courage – in the public, in Congress, in the Executive Branch itself – I see the unexpected possibility of a way up and out of the abyss.

Pressure by an informed public on Congress to form a select committee to investigate the revelations by Snowden and, I hope, others to come might lead us to bring NSA and the rest of the intelligence community under real supervision and restraint and restore the protections of the Bill of Rights.

Snowden did what he did because he recognized the NSA’s surveillance programs for what they are: dangerous, unconstitutional activity. This wholesale invasion of Americans’ and foreign citizens’ privacy does not contribute to our security; it puts in danger the very liberties we’re trying to protect.

Daniel Ellsberg is a former State and Defense Department official who has been arrested for acts of non-violent civil disobedience over eighty times, initially for copying and releasing the top secret Pentagon Papers, for which he faced 115 years in prison. Living in a non-swing state, he does not intend to vote for President Obama. [This essay originally appeared at the UK Guardian.]

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7 comments on “Ellsberg on Snowden’s Leak

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    Ms. Pease recounts the interview with Sen. Ron Wyden in which a lawyer, presumably someone from NSA, stands off camera proctoring his responses. Ray McGovern deftly disposes of the false equivalency in the President’s speech conflating “civil rights” with “safety”. Professor Pillar frames the discussion in terms of a pendulum’s moment between public outrage and demand for more aggressive measures, noting that the term “data mining” is an unfortunate choice of terminology which conjures suspicion. Suffice to say that the subsequent meta-analysis, whether performed on mined, hoovered, netted or fracked data, would be useless unless the communications it analyzes have been recorded in their entirety. That’s right, they can decide what’s interesting, then return to listen or read the recorded specific contents. But, we are expected to have sympathy for those poor, poor telecom companies who now face public relations recriminations because they were “doing their patriotic duty”.

    I think most Americans would agree that recording private communications should be illegal in the first place absent the appropriate specific search warrants. Thankfully, Mr. Ellsberg realistically points out that these surveillance powers, once obtained, are rarely relinquished. They represent “dangerous, unconstitutional activity”, to borrow his words.

    Those who would subscribe to the opinions of some of the disinformation specialists out there would be wise to note that the release of this story was not accomplished by “perfidious Albion” in an attempt to broker an “Anglo-Franco-Neocolonialist” coup. The viciousness with which these leaks have been pursued is not the response of an administration embroiled in a “Seven Days in May” scenario. These policies have been in effect for years, and they are not new. Whistle-blowers have been vigorously pursued because there is more to hide. The interview with Sen. Wyden should have people asking, “Just who the hell is running the show?” Anything less invites a pessimistic answer to Mr. Ellsberg’s question. Is there no return, or is there a way out of the abyss? Maybe it’s time to dust off my old Hallicrafters short wave, and dispense with the internet. At least when you listen to Voice of Russia or China Radio International, there’s no mistaking it’s propaganda. That’s no longer so in America.

    • Mats Larsson on said:

      J. Edgar HOOVERED, more like.

      • Frances in California on said:

        Why don’t we all just admit it? We’re in Imperial Collapse and will never again be secure. Maybe some day, someone smart will sweep the Neocon detritus off the edge and begin anew. I will be about a Century in my grave.

  2. Don Bacon on said:

    ANDREA MITCHELL (from a Clapper interview): What the president said in part was, “You can’t have a 100% security and then you have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

    The War on Terror is worldwide. It is war on everybody, and even those in the “homeland” can’t be exempted from “inconvenience” — i.e. loss of civil rights. Deprivation of civil liberties is an inevitable (and intended) part of a country at war. The bogus “war on terror’ is no exception. You can’t have one without the other.

    An excellent analysis of this condition is Randolph Bourne’s “War is the Health of the State” which is as valid now as when it was written in 1918. excerpts:

    The moment war is declared . .The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.

    War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. Of course, the ideal of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never really attained.

    War becomes almost a sport between the hunters and the hunted. The pursuit of enemies within outweighs in psychic attractiveness the assault on the enemy without. The whole terrific force of the State is brought to bear against the heretics. The nation boils with a slow insistent fever. A white terrorism is carried on by the Government against pacifists, socialists, enemy aliens, and a milder unofficial persecution against all persons or movements that can be imagined as connected with the enemy. War, which should be the health of the State, unifies all the bourgeois elements and the common people, and outlaws the rest.

    In this great herd machinery, dissent is like sand in the bearings. The State ideal is primarily a sort of blind animal push toward military unity. Any difference with that unity turns the whole vast impulse toward crushing it.

    So the ‘War On Terror’ is the problem.

  3. Robert Schwartz on said:

    In an otherwise very fine article Mr. Ellsberg states:

    “Obviously, the United States is not now a police state.”

    I would ask Dan to please define the term then. Consider the fact that the United States has more persons incarcerated, in toto and per capita, than any other nation on Earth. If that does not evidence a “police state,” what would? Perhaps this isn’t quite as manifest in the racial and social class strata that Mr. Ellsberg inhabits, but I doubt he would argue with the statistics. To put the question another way, What other nation would better be described by the term then our own, considering the numbers?

    To see a chart on comparative prison populations click on this link. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/uk/06/prisons/html/nn2page1.stm

  4. Mats Larsson on said:

    It is much more an Intelligence BUSINESS, and bureaucracy, is it not? Community sounds a bit too friendly; though I am sure those in the business are having a fantastic and fun time.

  5. Jeff Golin on said:

    The Fourth Amendment is construed in the light of an individual’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” under the law, but now there is no privacy, reasonable or not. So this represents a frontal assualt on our Constitution, from which there is no return.