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NSA Leaks and the Pentagon Papers: The Difference Between Edward Snowden and Daniel Ellsberg

A supporter holds a picture of Edward Snowden, outside the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong.

A supporter holds a picture of Edward Snowden, outside the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong. // Kin Cheung/AP

Edward Snowden has so raised the hackles of members of Congress and political commentators, it's worth taking a minute to try to understand why. It can't just be his leaks -- no similar reaction greeted revelations by Thomas Drake and William Binney, two recent NSA whistle-blowers who also sought to publicize post-9/11 intelligence overreach. Snowden told South China Morning Post reporter Lana Lam, "I'm neither traitor nor hero. I'm an American." But there are many sorts of Americans, and not all of them like each other. Something about Snowden has set many people off -- and the sources of the irritation with him are worth spelling out as a way of trying to understand the political moment, and how it differs in particular from the environment that greeted the man to whom he's most been compared, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. This is not a comprehensive list, but one intended to elucidate some of what's at issue.

1. Leakers Are Often Treated as a Type of Snitch. The first and most obvious source of negative reaction has to do with what he did. (Duh.) New York Times and Washington Post persuasively argue that Snowden cannot be guilty of treason -- as some have suggested -- since by revealing surveillance inside the Unites States (or even inside China) he is not aiding and abetting an enemy with whom we are formally at war. But he is guilty of violating basic human and workplace norms, in addition to his legally actionable promises as a person with top-secret clearance. From the gang-driven Stop Snitchin' campaign in Baltimore to professional cultural norms that ostracize people who publicly complain about their last employer or seek redress for discrimination, people have an instinctive cultural dislike of those seen as tattletales, even if what they have to say is accurate, important, and socially beneficial to disclose. This is why there are formal whistle-blower protections within the federal government and legal protections against retaliation in discrimination cases -- because there need to be, since the first instinct is always against them. So let's posit that Snowden begins his public life with this strike against him -- this inherent prejudice -- at the outset, in addition to the widely held prejudice against people who break laws, as he just openly did.

2. Snowden Lacks Stature and Insider Ties. Ellsberg had stature when he leaked the Pentagon Papers. As the Washington Post put it, "Ellsberg was a senior military analyst working at the Pentagon who had a direct role in drafting the Pentagon Papers." Meanwhile Snowden was, according to the Post, "a contractor who moved through a series of low-ranking jobs for the CIA and the NSA." 

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