Thursday, June 5, 2014

One year ago: June 6, 2013, the world first heard of Edward Snowden

On June 6, 2013, the UK Guardian newspaper exposed a top secret court showing that the NSA had collected phone records from over 120 million Verizon subscribers. Under the order, the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as the location data, unique identifiers, time of call, and duration of call were handed over to the FBI, which turned over the records to the NSA.   That was the first media report based on the material leaked by Edward Snowden. That was just the beginning.  And at the time, Snowden's claims that the US government was spying on its own citizens, in secret, everywhere, and all the time, seemed far-fetched. Now, one year later; we know they were only the tip of the iceberg.  What was once clearly in the realm of "crazy conspiracy theory" is now proven fact.  Simply calling something a "crazy conspiracy theory" is not enough anymore to discredit it. The incredible cannot be discounted.  Edward Snowden was a game-changer.

In light of what Edward Snowden has done, and the personal sacrifice he has made, to inform Americans of what their government is doing, in secret, I wanted to learn more about Daniel Ellsberg and his release of The Pentagon Papers in 1971.  I turned 13 that year.  I wasn't the least bit interested in what was happening; and to be quite honest, I never understood why it was such a big deal.  I'd seen the thick paperback in bookstores, which became a bestseller, but couldn't imagine anyone actually buying and reading it.  I didn't understand that the case was a big deal, not because people bought and read The Pentagon Papers, but because the New York Times attempted to publish them and was enjoined from doing so buy a federal court.  America's government, in other words, tried to keep the American people from learning the truth about what it was doing.  The New York Times stated later that the Pentagon Papers demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration "systematically lied, not only to the public, but also to Congress."

Hello, and thank you, Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden.

It surprised me to learn how immediately the American people, and the American press, and the American Congress, and even the Supreme Court reacted to the Pentagon Papers, and what a contrast that reaction was to the lackadaisical response to what Edward Snowden has revealed; which is no less significant, no less shocking, and touching far more of us directly.  Edward Snowden had to defect to release the information he provided us; he had to do it through foreign journalists and publications.  Americans should be shamed by that; and, indeed, it indicates just how morally apathetic Americans have become. How little they value their freedom.

The initial publication of the Pentagon Papers was by the New York Times in the Sunday edition of June 13, 1971. The reaction of the public was, as I said, immediate; it led to street protests; it led to Congressional hearings; people were outraged, and so was the American press, first when Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, ordered the NY Times to cease publication, and when the Times refused, the government obtained a court injunction prohibiting the them from printing more of the Papers.  Without hesitation, the Washington Post started printing it (on the 18th of June) ... when they were also threatened with a court injunction, the Boston Globe began printing it, then the Chicago Sun-Times; all 11 Knight Newspapers and the LA Times.  In all, the Pentagon Papers (which was a 7,000 page top-secret study of the Vietnam war commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967) was distributed to 17 national news organizations, most of whom planned to print it. On June 29th, Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), who during a filibuster against the selective service draft entered 4,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record.

On June 26, 1971, less than two weeks after the initial publication of the Papers, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear the government's case for prohibiting that publication; the Court returned a decision only 4 days later, on June 30, 1971. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States of America upheld the 1st Amendment right of the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish the information. It was a huge blow to the government of Richard Nixon, and it was a clear victory for the American people and the American free press.  It was huge.  It marked a major change in the relationship between the government and the media. The US media declared itself independent of the government, an independence they have since largely ceded. As the authors of a college textbook on free speech in America wrote, " the journalists of America pondered with grave concern the fact that for fifteen days the 'free press' of the nation had been prevented from publishing an important document."

Daniel Ellsberg was prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, and faced 115 years in prison.  His case was also heard by the Supreme Court of the United States, which threw out the case because the Nixon Administration was so badly tainted by the Watergate scandal and by the fact that it used the same set of "plumbers" to raid the offices of Ellsberg's psychiatrist, looking for something to discredit him.  Nixon was one contemptible sonavabitch, and everyone knew it by then:

"I think it is time in this country to quit making national heroes out of those who steal secrets and publish them in the newspaper."

– former US President Richard Nixon, 1971

And now we're hearing the same load of crap from people no more worthy of our respect than the vile man who spoke those words.  For exactly the same reasons; to prevent the American people from discovering the truth about their own government.  To hide the truth; to attack those who tell the truth; to destroy those who would expose the truth.

I started by reading the Wikipedia pages, but most of what I learned about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers came from the documentary film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (1h34m) produced by award-winning filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, which premiered on PBS October 5, 2010.  Much of the story is told by Ellsberg in his own words, as he describes what he went through to reach his decision to leak the Pentagon Papers; to reveal a systematic campaign of lying to the American people and to Congress from the very highest levels of government.  There's also lots of commentary from others who were involved in the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and lots of good video footage. 

I gave up my job, my career, my clearance, and I staked my freedom on a gamble: if the American people knew the truth about how they had been lied to, about the myths that had led them to endorse this butchery for 25 years, that they would choose against it. And the risk that you take when you do that is that you'll learn something, ultimately, about your fellow citizens that you won't like to hear, and that is that they hear it, they learn from it, they understand it, and they proceed to ignore it.

– Daniel Ellsberg, Radio Interview, 1972


The greatest fear that I have regarding the outcome for America of these disclosures is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests.

– Edward Snowden, Hong Kong interview, June 6, 2013

Both men put theirs squarely on the line; and expressed their greatest fear:  that their fellow Americans would not have the backbone to do the same. I fear they might be right.

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