In the Washington Post this week, Daniel Ellsberg published a thoughtful opinion piece on Edward Snowden’s decision to leave the country after releasing information about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program. Ellsberg highlights how Snowden’s self-imposed exile is itself a critically important nonviolent action that is multiplying and extending his original act of conscience. Nonviolent resistance is not confined to the specific, isolated, dramatic act, Ellsberg seems to be suggesting. It opens opportunities for new action, and can come to be seen as part of an ever expanding drama, with many acts and episodes, all potentially furthering the opportunity for nonviolent change.
This speaks to Edward Snowden’s case — but it might apply even more to Ellsberg himself.
Releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 was an historic act. Since then Ellsberg has relentlessly built on and expanded upon this particular nonviolent action in innumerable ways. Retirement doesn’t seem to apply to the job of making the world a better place, as Ellsberg proves almost daily.
Snowden has been criticized for fleeing the country. Some have compared him disapprovingly to Ellsberg, who, after leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other papers in 1971, came forward and was eventually tried in a court of law. In his piece, Ellsberg challenged this negative comparison by carefully illuminating his own case in his fervent support of Snowden.
After the New York Times began publishing the documents demonstrating how the U.S. government misled the public about the roots and conduct of the war in Vietnam, Ellsberg went underground so that, once the paper was enjoined by federal injunction to halt publication, he could continue to feed copies to other news agencies. Eventually, 17 papers across the United States got the information out, but this would not have happened if he had turned himself in immediately.
Ellsberg also points out that he was free on bail both before and during his trial, which allowed him to crisscross the country to speak to the media and the general public to magnify the meaning and implications of the Pentagon Papers. Though he was prosecuted under U.S. espionage laws, and faced 115 years in federal prison, he was released on his own recognizance and was free to engage in a conversation with American society about the war. America, he says, is a very different place today. As the Bradley Manning case suggests, Snowden would likely have been sequestered as soon as he surfaced. There would be no extended conversation with the country once he turned himself in to the authorities.
“Snowden believes that he has done nothing wrong. I agree wholeheartedly,” Ellsberg writes. “More than 40 years after my unauthorized disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, such leaks remain the lifeblood of a free press and our republic. One lesson of the Pentagon Papers and Snowden’s leaks is simple: secrecy corrupts, just as power corrupts.” Ellsberg goes on to say that what Snowden “has given us is our best chance — if we respond to his information and his challenge — to rescue ourselves from out-of-control surveillance that shifts all practical power to the executive branch and its intelligence agencies.”
This essay, worth reading in full, is the kind of gift Ellsberg has been placing in our hands for decades: an intelligent, documented and detailed assessment that unpacks, illuminates and reveals the particulars at hand — in this case, the risky business Snowden has taken on — but always at the same time aimed at plumbing the dangerous waters into which both the nation and the world seem to be headed. While he sometimes draws on his own experience as a uniquely positioned whistleblower in making his argument — this is especially the case in his superb book Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers — his blogs, essays and books are not about reliving the increasingly distant past but about grappling with the present. Each new essay or speech sparkles with an urgency about what we are up against now, whether that’s the ever-present threat of a U.S. invasion of Iran, the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons, or the threat of comprehensive surveillance — and calls us to a considered understanding of both the dangers we face and the options before us.
To me, these innumerable dispatches of wisdom — analytic, principled and often somber — are of a piece with the other way Ellsberg has tried to get our attention over the past four decades: nonviolent civil disobedience. “After leaking the Pentagon Papers, you could have sat on your laurels,” I once said to him in an interview. “Why didn’t you?” He looked at me with bewilderment. Though such a thing might have occurred to someone else — taking such a risky step, after all, is trouble enough for a lifetime — for him the work wasn’t finished. In fact, releasing the papers seemed to release something in him, so that he plunged feet first into the roiling waters of nonviolent movements using the most powerful symbol he had at his disposal to back up his words and his analysis: his own vulnerable body.
The interview we did, for example, concerned his active participation in the waves of nonviolent action at the Nevada Test Site in the 1980s. The United States detonated nuclear weapons at the site north of Las Vegas on average once every 18 days beginning in 1951. Ellsberg took part in the nonviolent resistance organized by Nevada Desert Experience and other organizations to stop this, but he also participated in riskier actions than simply crossing the line at the facility’s entrance. In 1985 he and a couple of members of Greenpeace walked deep into the site just before a nuclear device was scheduled to be detonated. Via walkie-talkie, they made contact with the test site authorities that they were in the area and that they should not follow through with the test. Not only was the test delayed, Ellsberg managed to communicate with some friends in Congress who used the news of this action to help pass a bill in the House calling for an end to testing. (It was killed in the Senate.) These actions contributed to those by many others in the United States and around the world to establish the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the early 1990s.
But there are so many other times when he was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience: at an historic action when hundreds were arrested at the CIA headquarters; as part of the campaign at Concord Naval Weapons Station where his friend, Brian Willson, was run down by a train carrying arms bound for Central America; and innumerable protests against the Persian Gulf War and the later wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been arrested at the White House and at Red Square in Moscow.
One of my favorite examples is the yearlong campaign at Rocky Flats, the facility outside Denver that manufactured the plutonium pits used in nuclear arms. He and others took part in waves of resistance month after month. Dubbed the “Rocky Flats Truth Force,” the protesters sat on a strategic railroad spur to “stop the arms race in its tracks” and interfere with the smooth functioning of nuclear weapons assembly and production. Many were arrested and tried. A few years later the facility was shuttered.
“As a former official speaking on so many matters which so many officials have concealed, denied and lied about over the years, I was glad to have the opportunity in court to testify to my knowledge and beliefs,” Ellsberg wrote about his testimony in A Year of Disobedience, a book by Keith Pope about the campaign. “I revealed the Pentagon Papers because I believed that decades of secrecy surrounding official decision making in Vietnam, by promoting public ignorance and passivity, had prolonged a needless and wrongful war and threatened the survival of our democracy.”
The ongoing threats to our democracy persist, and Ellsberg continues to sound the alarm with his words and with his body. For example, on August 6, he will be a keynote speaker at the annual protest at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, marking the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, where he will likely cross the line with others. Like Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg persists with peaceful but determined resistance. He reminds us that at any point in our lives — Ellsberg recently turned 82 — there’s work to be done.