Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistleblower
From their backgrounds to their motivations, the two men have some striking differences.
By Malcolm Gladwell
Dec 19 2016 Issue
In the summer of 1967, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a group of thirty-six scholars to write a secret history of the Vietnam War. The project took a year and a half, ran to seven thousand pages, and filled forty-seven volumes. Only a handful of copies were made, and most were kept under lock and key in and around the Beltway. One set, however, ended up at the RAND Corporation, in Santa Monica, where it was read, from start to finish, by a young analyst there named Daniel Ellsberg.
Ellsberg was dismayed by what he learned. For a generation, the U.S. government had been lying to the American people about the Vietnam War. He put the first of the volumes in his briefcase, praying that the security guards at RAND would not stop him, and made his way to a small advertising agency in West Hollywood, where a friend told him there was a Xerox machine he could use.
“It was a big one, advanced for its time, but very slow by today’s standards,” Ellsberg writes in his 2002 autobiography, “Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers”:
It could do only one page at a time, and it took several seconds to do each page. I tried pressing the book down on the glass to do two pages at a time, but the middle section was faint and uneven. Fortunately the books were bound with metal tapes through holes so they could be taken apart. . . . The machine didn’t collate, and the bar had to come back and travel just as slowly for each copy.
Night after night, Ellsberg repeated the process: copying until dawn, rushing home, hiding the pages, grabbing a few hours’ sleep, then stumbling bleary-eyed into the office. Eventually, he gave copies of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers to the Times and then the Washington Post, and passed into history as the archetypal modern whistleblower.
Ellsberg was handsome and charismatic. He had served in the Marine Corps as a company commander in Korea. He did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, where he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on game theory and collaborated with Thomas Schelling, who went on to win a Nobel Prize. He took a senior post in McNamara’s Defense Department, represented the State Department in Vietnam, and had two stints as a senior intelligence analyst at the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg knew about the Pentagon Papers because he was a member of the select team that wrote them, working on the section dealing with the very early nineteen-sixties. Before he approached the Times, he went to the Senate, where he tried to get someone to release the documents formally and hold public hearings. He walked the halls and dropped in on people he knew. “I had Senator Mathias in mind, and Senator Mike Gravel,” who, he notes, had “written me a letter congratulating me on my New York Review of Books article,” about the bombings in Laos. (It seems safe to say that the subject, verb, and object here—“Senator,” “written,” “New York Review of Books article”—may never again appear together in a sentence.)
In another passage in “Secrets,” Ellsberg relates a conversation he had in 1968 with Henry Kissinger, a Harvard acquaintance. Ellsberg was trying to prepare Kissinger for the White House. For the first time in your life, Ellsberg tells him, you will have a security clearance and gain access to a steady flow of government secrets. He goes on:
You will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess.
That feeling of foolishness, Ellsberg continues, will last two weeks, at which point you will become so enthralled by your access to “whole libraries of hidden information” that
it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?” And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. . . . The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron.
Ellsberg says that Kissinger listened carefully, but “I knew it was too soon for him to appreciate fully what I was saying. He didn’t have the clearances yet.”