Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers to The New York Times in 1971 exposed the secret history of the war in Vietnam, thinks Edward Snowden's leak of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs was more important than his.
"In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material, and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago," Ellsberg wrote in an op-ed published by the Guardian on Monday. "Snowden's whistleblowing gives us the possibility to roll back a key part of what has amounted to an 'executive coup' against the U.S. constitution."
Ellsberg added on CNN Sunday night that “it can’t be overestimated to this democracy. It gives us a chance, I think, from drawing back from the total surveillance state that we could say we’re in process of becoming, I’m afraid we have become. That’s what he’s revealed.”
On Friday, President Barack Obama defended the programs that predated his administration, saying Americans must tolerate "modest encroachments on privacy" in the name of security, Congress had been fully briefed, and that his White House "actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards."
In the Guardian, Ellsberg scoffed at Obama's response:
For the president then to say that there is judicial oversight is nonsense—as is the alleged oversight function of the intelligence committees in Congress. Not for the first time—as with issues of torture, kidnapping, detention, assassination by drones and death squads—they have shown themselves to be thoroughly co-opted by the agencies they supposedly monitor. They are also black holes for information that the public needs to know.
The fact that congressional leaders were "briefed" on this and went along with it, without any open debate, hearings, staff analysis, or any real chance for effective dissent, only shows how broken the system of checks and balances is in this country.
It's not the first time Ellberg has butted heads with Obama.
In 2011, Ellsberg was among a group of noted whistle-blowers that penned an open letter asking that a "transparency award" given to Obama earlier that year be rescinded. They called the Obama administration's record on secrecy and surveillance "a disgrace."
In 1971, Ellsberg became the first person to be prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act for releasing classified information to the public. The case was later dismissed when it was revealed during trial that the government had engaged in illegal wiretapping to gather evidence against him.
The Pentagon Papers were formally declassified in 2011.
Last week, Ellsberg told The Washington Post that the U.S. government would have gone after him the same way they've gone after Bradley Manning, the former U.S. soldier who is currently on trial accused of providing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
"I'm sure that President Obama would have sought a life sentence in my case," Ellsberg said.