Daniel Ellsberg

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I seriously doubt Edward Snowden will be used as a pawn in the current gamesmanship between Russia and much of the rest of the world. He’s really not that valuable in any practical sense. He proved something–that the U.S. became a surveillance state in the wake of 9/11–which was already pretty obvious to everyone, and apparently approved of by most Americans. And I don’t see how his revelations will change much (except superficially) since technology isn’t going to move sideways or backwards. Regardless of laws, there will be more spying and more leaks proving it. At the same time, I believe in strong protections for whistleblowers who are not gathering information for their own spying purposes.

Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Oscar-winning Citizenfour director Laura Poitras just did an AMA at Reddit. Some Snowden exchanges follow.



Can you explain what your life in Moscow is like?

Edward Snowden:

Moscow is the biggest city in Europe. A lot of people forget that. Shy of Tokyo, it’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. I’d rather be home, but it’s a lot like any other major city.


Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov has described your daily life as circumscribed by Russian state security services, which he said control the circumstances of your life there. Is this accurate? What are your interactions with Russian state security like? With Russian government representatives generally?

Edward Snowden:

Good question, thanks for asking.

The answer is “of course not.” You’ll notice in all of these articles, the assertions ultimately come down to speculation and suspicion. None of them claim to have any actual proof, they’re just so damned sure I’m a Russian spy that it must be true.

And I get that. I really do. I mean come on – I used to teach “cyber counterintelligence” (their term) at DIA.

But when you look at in aggregate, what sense does that make? If I were a russian spy, why go to Hong Kong? It’s would have been an unacceptable risk. And further – why give any information to journalists at all, for that matter, much less so much and of such importance? Any intelligence value it would have to the russians would be immediately compromised.

If I were a spy for the russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn’t play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to cooperate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you’re interested), and that hasn’t changed.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened.


Don’t you fear that at some point you will be used as leverage in a negotiation? eg; “if you drop the sanctions we give you Snowden”

Edward Snowden:

It is very realistic that in the realpolitik of great powers, this kind of thing could happen. I don’t like to think that it would happen, but it certainly could.

At the same time, I’m so incredibly blessed to have had an opportunity to give so much back to the people and internet that I love. I acted in accordance with my conscience and in so doing have enjoyed far more luck than any one person can ask for. If that luck should run out sooner rather than later, on balance I will still – and always – be satisfied.



How can we make sure that people still want to leak important information when everyone who does so puts the rest of their lives at stake?

Edward Snowden:

Whistleblower protection laws, a strong defense of the right for someone charged with political crimes to make any defense they want (currently in the US, someone charged with revealing classified information is entirely prohibited from arguing before the jury that the programs were unlawful, immoral, or otherwise wrongful), and support for the development of technically and legally protected means of communications between sources and journalists.

The sad truth is that societies that demand whistleblowers be martyrs often find themselves without either, and always when it matters the most.



Mr. Snowden, if you had a chance to do things over again, would you do anything differently? If so, what?

Edward Snowden:

I would have come forward sooner. I talked to Daniel Ellsberg about this at length, who has explained why more eloquently than I can.

Had I come forward a little sooner, these programs would have been a little less entrenched, and those abusing them would have felt a little less familiar with and accustomed to the exercise of those powers. This is something we see in almost every sector of government, not just in the national security space, but it’s very important:

Once you grant the government some new power or authority, it becomes exponentially more difficult to roll it back. Regardless of how little value a program or power has been shown to have (such as the Section 215 dragnet interception of call records in the United States, which the government’s own investigation found never stopped a single imminent terrorist attack despite a decade of operation), once it’s a sunk cost, once dollars and reputations have been invested in it, it’s hard to peel that back.

Don’t let it happen in your country.•


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Whether we’re talking about governments and corporations spying on individuals or citizens leaking classified documents, I think the main problem isn’t that legislation hasn’t yet caught up to technology, but that it can’t and won’t. When information is so easy to intercept, when you can download Deep Throat, when everyone can be proven guilty, what will the new morality be?

A few differences between Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak and Assange, Manning and Snowden, from “The Three Leakers and What to Do About Them,” by David Cole at the New York Review of Books:

“First, unlike Nixon, Obama did not attempt to prohibit the publication of any of Snowden’s or Manning’s leaks. The Pentagon Papers case, thanks in part to Goodale’s own arguments before the courts, established an extraordinarily high legal bar for enjoining publication, and that bar holds today. For many of the justices in the Pentagon Papers case, however, that bar applied only to ‘prior restraints’—requests to prohibit publication altogether—and would not apply to after-the-fact criminal prosecutions of leakers. While the Times was not prosecuted, Ellsberg was, and his case was dismissed not on First Amendment grounds, but on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct.

Second, the digital age has profoundly altered the dynamics and stakes of leaks. Computers make stealing documents much more efficient. Ellsberg had to spend months manually photocopying the Pentagon Papers. Manning used his computer to download over 700,000 documents, and Snowden apparently stole even more. The Internet makes disclosures across national borders much easier. Manning uploaded his documents directly to WikiLeaks’ website, hosted in Sweden, far beyond US reach. Snowden gave access to his documents to journalists in Germany, Brazil, and the US, and they have in turn published them in newspapers throughout the world.

Third, computers and the Internet have at the same time made it easier to identify and prosecute leakers. When someone leaked the fact that the US had placed an agent inside an active al-Qaeda cell in May 2012, an entirely unjustifiable disclosure, the Justice Department spent eight months investigating the old-fashioned way, interviewing over 550 people without success. But when the prosecutors subpoenaed phone records of the Associated Press offices and reporters involved in publishing the story, they promptly identified the leaker, an FBI agent, and obtained a guilty plea.”

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I was neither awed nor upset by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaking for a few reasons: 1) From the moment the Patriot Act passed, we had given our government a “by whatever means necessary” standard, 2) I think most Americans have embraced being watched and feel safer that way (though I don’t), 3) The technological tools of today (and certainly those of tomorrow) cannot be controlled by legislation, 4) Technology is a doubled-edged sword, and the government will be spied on as much as it spies. The power has been disseminated and it will be used, if not always well. To paraphrase Chance Gardner: “We like to watch.”

I have a great fear of imprisoning whistleblowers. We need those who will risk themselves to stop Watergates and Abu Ghraibs. And while Snowden may have stated the obvious and ironically ended up living in Russia, the ultimate surveillance state, he wasn’t wrong.

In a new Ask Me Anything at Reddit, Pentagon Papers leaker and staunch Snowden supporter Daniel Ellsberg answers an oft-asked question: Why should those with nothing to hide fear surveillance?


I’m curious how you respond when people tell you that ‘they have nothing to hide.’ How do you help them see that this isn’t a valid argument for why they shouldn’t be concerned?

Daniel Ellsberg:

Do they want to live in a democracy, with checks and balances, restraints on Executive power? (They may not feel that they care, though I would say they should; but if they do, it’s relevant to the question that follows). Do they really believe that real democracy is viable, when one branch of government, the Executive, knows or can know every detail of every private communication (or credit card transaction, or movement) of: every journalist; every source to every journalist; every member of Congress and their staffs; every judge, at every level up to the Supreme Court? Do they think that every one of these people ‘has nothing to hide,’ nothing that could be used to blackmail them or manipulate them, or neutralize their dissent to Executive policies, or influence voting behavior? Is investigative journalism, or aggressive Congressional investigation of the Executive, or court restraints on Executive practices, really possible with that amount of transparency to the Executive of their private and professional lives and associations? And without any of those checks, the kind of democracy you have is that of the German Democratic Republic in East Germany, with its Stasi (which had a miniscule fraction of the surveillance capability the NSA has now, but enough to turn a fraction of the population of East Germany into secret Stasi informants).

Might these ‘good, honest citizens’ with nothing to hide ever imagine that they might feel a challenge to be a whistleblower, or a source to a journalist or Congressperson, or engage in associations or parties critical of the current administration? As The Burglary recounts, it was enough to write a letter to a newspaper critical of the FBI to get on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI list for potential detention or more active surveillance. And once on, hard or impossible to get off. (See ‘no fly’ lists today ).”

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