Daniel Ellsberg — the leaker of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers — did a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything (AmA) this week, during which he talked about the NSA surveillance state and explained why Edward Snowden should never come home.
Over the last year, Ellsberg has been an outspoken advocate of fellow whistleblower Snowden, publishing editorials in the Washington Post and The Guardian praising his efforts in June. He has also often spoke out in favour of Wikileaks and Private First Class Chelsea Manning.
During the AmA, Redditors asked some interesting questions, including whether Snowden should return to the United States and face charges as he did. Ellsberg’s answer was a very definitive “no.” Check out the full AmA here, and see highlights below.
Some answers have been edited for clarity.
Do you think that Snowden should return to the U.S. and face charges, as you did?
No. Unlike me, in 1971, I don’t believe he’d be out on bail or bond while awaiting trial. Like Chelsea Manning, he’d be in an isolation cell, incommunicado (Manning hasn’t been spoken to by a journalist for the more than three years since she was arrested in Kuwait), probably for the rest of his life.
The Constitution hasn’t changed — the laws he is charged under, and I faced in 1971-73, would at that time very likely have been held to be unconstitutional in that application (to leakers: I was the first to be prosecuted for a leak, under the Espionage Act or any law). But with the new courts, that’s much less likely [for the law to be held unconstitutional]. I don’t think anything or anyone would be served by his suffering that fate.
What do you think it would take for genuine reform of the NSA?
I think getting the NSA truly accountable and under democratic control is a very challenging, difficult and uncertain problem.
The four NSA experts who resigned in protest to its unconstitutional behaviour since 9/11 — Kirk Wiebe, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis and Bill Binney — have recently published a list of reforms that they think necessary. To ensure that these are actually carried out — after Congress and the president have (under public pressure) demanded them, they propose a permanent Signals Intelligence Investigatory Body of technical experts embedded at the NSA with continuous auditing and access to all NSA computers and databases, reporting to both Congress and the FISA Court.
Will the President or NSA readily embrace or “accept” such a body? No. But Congress could create it and empower it, if they were sufficiently pressed to do so by a properly-alarmed public.
What do you think is the most effective way to force the government to change its ways when it comes to the surveillance state?
Snowden has started the process off, by giving the public, through the press, the alarming information about how much we are being spied on by our government, with the help of the telecom companies. …
We need another congressional investigation like the Church Committee [which investigated the practices of the intelligence agencies after Watergate], and to learn from that one how to do better this time. (E.g., don’t hire staff directly from the FBI, CIA, NSA!)
The so-called Oversight Committees that were created have been a total failure at oversight; they’ve been co-opted into being a PR agency of the intelligence community, and a guardian of its secrets. Their own abuses and obstruction of justice deserves investigation by Congress: fat chance!
A new select committee, which would include types like House representatives John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Justin Amash (R-Mich.), or Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) in the Senate [who have emerged as outspoken critics of NSA surveillance], would have a chance, and should at least be given that chance: with a long mandate, subpoena powers and a big budget. Meanwhile, we need more Snowdens! Not fewer, as is said to be the president’s misguided focus.
How do you help people see that “they have nothing to hide” isn’t a valid argument for why they shouldn’t be concerned about NSA surveillance?
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 behaviour? 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?
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 minuscule 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, it’s hard or impossible to get off. (See “no fly” lists today).
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