Take Edward Snowden. It has been six years since Snowden leaked a trove of secret documents that exposed the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program. For this act of public service, Snowden was charged with violating the Espionage Act, forcing him to live in exile in Russia. And even as the latest whistleblower scandal was breaking, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Snowden over the release of his new memoir, “Permanent Record” — an absurd act of spite considering that the book contains no details about surveillance that have not been previously reported.
“When the government is embarrassed after being caught breaking the law, they say the people who revealed that lawbreaking have caused serious harm to national security,” Snowden explained in a recent interview on CBS. “This was the case of Daniel Ellsberg way back in the Vietnam War with the Pentagon Papers.”
Ellsberg, of course, is the godfather of modern whistleblowing. After his 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers revealed that multiple U.S. administrations had misled the public about their plans for war in Vietnam, Ellsberg faced charges under the Espionage Act. Henry Kissinger famously labeled him “the most dangerous man in America who must be stopped at all costs.” But Ellsberg was not stopped. The charges against him were dropped after it was revealed that White House operatives had broken into his psychiatrist’s office in an attempt to discredit him — and he has gone on to a prolific career as a writer, lecturer and activist.
Now, his life’s work is being preserved and made available to the public. Last week, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced that it has acquired more than 500 boxes of Ellsberg’s papers, annotated books and photographs. The massive collection includes analyses from his time at the RAND Corp. and the Defense Department, extensive notes from his criminal trial, and personal correspondence with the likes of Kissinger and Eugene McCarthy. It also contains a wide range of materials from Ellsberg’s vital work as an antiwar and anti-nuclear activist in the decades after his whistleblowing, work that informed his 2017 book “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.”
Ellsberg’s papers will be housed in the archives of UMass’s W.E.B. Du Bois Library alongside the papers of the famed civil rights activist (another man so “dangerous” that the FBI had a 750-page file on him). They will give future scholars and activists valuable insight not only into Ellsberg’s life but also into key events in U.S. history that are still relevant today.
In a phone interview, Ellsberg told me he is particularly excited that his archives will be digitized, a reflection of his commitment to the democratization of information. He added that the public needs to understand that we now face two “existential” crises as a result of the risks posed by nuclear war and catastrophic climate change. “Today, Greta Thunberg is the most dangerous person in the world,” he said, referring to the 16-year-old climate activist. “I am trying to channel her.” As for the current presidential scandal, Ellsberg sees clear historic parallels. “We’re back to Nixon and the redacted transcript.”
At the same time, Ellsberg said the complaint against Trump may be the start of a “new phase” in the long tradition of whistleblowing. The American people should hope he is right. Telling the truth about the government’s failings is not always popular, but it is among the highest forms of patriotism. Whistleblowers who put themselves at risk to inform the public deserve our gratitude, even when Trump is not the target of their revelations. As Ellsberg told the Boston Globe last week, “Officials in any country want to keep their secrets. What defines a democracy is that they don’t get to.”
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