Highlights of Daniel Ellsberg’s Reddit AMA on Edward Snowden and NSA surveillance

Daniel Ellsberg. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

Pentagon Papers whistleblower (and our co-founder) Daniel Ellsberg held an expansive, seven-hour long Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session yesterday to explain why NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden will join our board of directors. He also discussed many other subjects—including NSA surveillance, President Obama’s flip-flop on whistleblowers, Nixon’s dirty tricks, and the dangers of excessive government secrecy.

Below are some of our favorite questions and answers. But make sure to read the last remarkable exchange, in which Mr. Ellsberg finds out—for the first time—that the Nixon administration had surveillance of him from before the Pentagon Papers were leaked.

Question: “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. [Just as] the attempted reforms of the Church committee in 1975-76--which are now all shown, by Snowden, to have failed by now--had to be started off by the revelations of FBI abuses that came from the break-in to the Media, Pa. offices of the FBI in 1971. The story of that burglary, and what came of it, and the heroes who did it, has just been published in Betty Medsger's book "The Burglary," which couldn't be more timely. I urge everyone to read that, both as an inspiring tale and as a guide to what is needed in the way of a "Citizens committee to investigate the FBI" (and CIA, NSA) as they called themselves, and how reforms can be derailed over time.

We need another congressional investigation like the Church Committee, 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 coopted 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! But a new select committee, which would include types like Conyers and Amash, in the House, or Wyden and Udall in the Senate, 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).

Question: “Thank you Mr. Ellsberg. What, in your opinion, is going on in this country that would cause a Democratic president to carry so much water for an out-of-control "national security state"? It is a question I am personally confounded by on an almost daily basis and the most bizarre and concerning state of affairs.”

This is truly puzzling: why, in particular, has Obama prosecuted nearly three times as many whistleblowers/leakers than all previous presidents combined? I ask this a lot, and don't get very compelling answers. (Even my friend Noam Chomsky, who is rarely without answers and hardly naive about politicians, has said this has surprised him, and he doesn't know why). Today's news (NYT, Charlie Savage and Peter Baker, p. 1) about what he's likely to say on Friday says that he has to try to "placate civil liberties advocates" (i.e., those advocate observing the Fourth Amendment)"without a backlash from national security agencies" (i.e., those who have been violating the Fourth Amendment, with his acquiescence). Curious language. Unlike the civil liberties advocates--members of the public, evidently, not within the administration--who don't work for him, the national security agencies do, in principle (and according to the constitution) do work for him. Their officials can be given directives, and they can be fired by him (or prosecuted). What exactly is this "backlash" he has to fear?

Well, I'm not naive about how such power and secretive agencies can give even a president real trouble in his programs--and just possibly, worse than that. For whatever specific reasons, Obama does seem to run scared of them. As the NYT reports today, those agencies don't seem to be fearing what they'll hear from him Friday.

Question: “I am horrified by the way that the Obama administration and present USG is treating whistleblowers and investigative journalists, not just Snowden but others such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Jeremy Hammond & Barrett Brown. This excessive assault on truth-tellers is just one symptom of a government and president out of control in desire for absolute power and control; also so clearly demonstrated by the NSA and Stratfor revelations. What can the average American citizen do to try to bring our government back under our control - to demand and get accountability and true protection of our constitutional rights?"

Your "horror" is justified and appropriate, and needs to be communicated to the public at large. The dangerous alternative is that we accept the government's line, and its acolytes in Congress and the press, that this is all for our good, nothing to worry about, folks, trust us, we know what's best for you and that's exactly what we're doing (and all we're doing), etc...

We're in a constitutional crisis--have been since 9-11, but didn't seem to know it--which has come to the public's attention thanks to Snowden. Manning's revelations were horrifying enough to those who care about what we do to "others," foreigners, "enemies" and their relatives: but humans, not just Americans, generally don't get as upset about that as about what Snowden has shown our government does to "us," at home. We need to remain aware, however uncomfortable and frustrating that is, that what they've been doing is OUTRAGEOUS and intolerable in what we want to preserve as a free society. And then act on the enraging information to demand of our representatives in Congress that they act on their constitutional responsibilities to rein in executive branch abuses that violate the oath to the constitution that both Congresspersons and all officials take.

Question: “Daniel, what do you think it would take for genuine reform of the NSA? Does a president today even have the power to prevent public surveillance and if not, do you think this power can ever be returned to an elected position rather than the intelligence agencies?”

I think getting 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 behavior 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 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.

Question: “I'm curious how you respond when people tell you that "they have nothing to hide". How do you help them see that this isn't a valid argument for why they shouldn't be concerned?”

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 behavior? 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? And 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 miniscule 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, hard or impossible to get off. (See "no fly" lists today).

Question: “I am close friends with someone who used to work in intelligence for the Navy and while he agrees with most of what Snowden has done he believes that Snowden was wrong in releasing info about the U.S. foreign spying programs (being able to tap phone calls of other world leaders was mentioned in our discussion) and for that reason he believes the U.S. should try Snowden for treason, same with Bradley/Chelsea Manning. I was wondering your thoughts / how you would respond to that as he mentioned you by name as someone who ‘did it the right way’.”

Two parts to this. First, no human is beyond criticism or evaluative judgment, no human never makes mistakes. Whether the public needs and deserves a particular piece of "secret" information is a matter of judgment (in the first instance, by the classifier, then by whoever has access to it), and judgments will differ, and misjudgments are certainly possible. There were revelations by Manning, and by Snowden, that I would probably not have made myself (though in some cases, with Manning, I've revised my judgment later: remember, there has been NO evidence brought out that anyone was actually harmed by her whole mass of revelations, and benefits--as in Tunisia, and the removal of all US troops from Iraq--that would have been very hard to predict. The same is true so far of Snowden: allegations but NO evidence of specific harm to processes or individuals). The claims of actual or potential harm were made just as strongly for the Pentagon Papers, and NONE was validated. Same, as I've just said, for Snowden, so far. These routine, though sometimes hysterical, accusations should be met with a great deal of skepticism.

As of now, I trust the judgment of Edward Snowden, as to what the public needs to and should be told about what NSA is doing, enormously more than I do the judgment of Clapper or Alexander, or Diane Feinstein or Peter King. It would take very good evidence of extremely harmful misjudgments by Snowden to change my opinion, given what all these others have chosen to conceal from us.

On "treason": neither Snowden nor Manning would ever be charged with that in a court, any more than I. I keep mentioning the Constitution. Read that document on this: treason is the ONLY crime defined there, precisely to keep it from expanded with a Constitutional amendment. It shall be "only" (from my memory) "waging war against the U.S., or adhering to its enemies, giving them aid and comfort." It's absurd to claim that Snowden or Manning (or I) "adhered to" enemies of the U.S. What we did, for good or bad as seen by others, was for the benefit of our country and its freedoms and institutions. (And that includes what our officials are allowed to do to foreigners, in our name).

Question: “When did you first become aware that there had been an attempt to seize your medical files from Lewis Fielding's office, and what was your reaction to the administration going that far? In general, how aware were you of surveillance and character assassination attempts against your person, such as the attempts to tie you to communist groups in Minnesota as per this conversation between Nixon and John Mitchell?

WOW! That link is absolutely fascinating! (Even though I don't have the time just now to go through it in detail, as I will shortly). Thank you for the link! I have to ask, where is it from, where did you get it (on the White House transcripts)?

Well, in answer to your question, I just became aware of some surveillance on me (BEFORE the Pentagon papers came out) ten minutes ago, from your link. I was being surveilled because I was a witness in a criminal trial of draft resisters, some of the Minnesota Eight. Their very good lawyer has been accused, I don't know on what basis, of having been a Communist. And that allegation was not of particular significance to the DOJ UNTIL, months later, he was associated with me, after the Papers came out. Likewise, the president is heard discussing with Haldeman on these transcripts the need to go back over earlier (illegal, warrantless) wiretaps--of journalists and White House officials, on which I was overheard--to see what might look significant now, in light of the release of the Pentagon Papers.

That's what I've been talking about in earlier answers: the ability of the government to go back to taps collected years earlier to look for material with which to influence potential witnesses in the present. (See their interest in the allegation that the wife of one journalist may have been accused of shoplifting in her past). So people who have "nothing to hide" should ask themselves if that is equally true of their spouses or children, or neighbors, who could possibly be turned into informants by threat of their private lives being revealed. (The Cuban CIA assets who burglarized my psychoanalyst's office were interested in my children and wife as much as me, a reporter who interviewed them was told; they had been told of the precedent of Alger Hiss' step-son who was crucially deterred, at Hiss' insistence, from testifying in his defense at his trial on a crucial point, because he would have been questioned about his alleged homosexuality).

My analyst later apologized to me for not telling me about the break-in--which he was sure was aimed at me, by the White House--because his lawyer had advised him not to "get involved." So I didn't know about it until it came out in my courtroom, thanks to John Dean's revelation. All for the best. If he had told me and we had raised it in the court-room, the plumbers would not have been kept on the White House payroll (via CREEP) and would not have been ordered into the Watergate. Nixon would have stayed in office, and the war would have continued for years.

The Redditor that asked Mr. Ellsberg the question, known as "PulvisEtUmbraSumus," responded like this:

I'm working on some research concerning the Nixon Administration and Mitchell's DOJ the same day you do an AMA. Small world. Just found that document last night.

In answer to your question, that file (Bin 9 of 21, Binder #1) and others can be found here. It's all under the "Records of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, 1971 - 1977" collection in the National Archives.

You're a brave man Mr. Ellsberg. As an aspiring historian, I have to admit, this is a little trippy.

Our thoughts exactly.