‘Is whistleblowing worth prison or a life in exile?’: Edward Snowden talks to Daniel Ellsberg


Edward Snowden (left) and Daniel Ellsberg

The two most famous whistleblowers in modern history discuss Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, about Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers, the personal cost of what they did – and if they’d advise anybody to follow in their footsteps. Introduced by Ewen MacAskill

Daniel Ellsberg, the US whistleblower celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, was called “the most dangerous man in America” by the Nixon administration in the 70s. More than 40 years later, the man he helped inspire, Edward Snowden, was called “the terrible traitor” by Donald Trump, as he called for Snowden’s execution.

The Guardian has brought the two together – the most famous whistleblower of the 20th century and the most famous of the 21st so far – to discuss leaks, press freedom and other issues raised in Spielberg’s film.

Starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, The Post deals with Ellsberg’s 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, which revealed presidents from Truman to Nixon lying about the Vietnam war. It deals, too, with the battle of the US media, primarily the Washington Post and the New York Times, to protect press freedom.

During a two-hour internet linkup between Ellsberg in Berkeley, California, Snowden in Moscow and the Guardian in London, the whistleblowers discussed the ethics, practicalities and agonised internal debate involved in whistleblowing and how The Post has a special resonance today in Trump’s America.

They are worried about Trump’s assault on press freedom and express fear that journalists could be indicted for the first time in US history. And they are alarmed by the prospect of a US nuclear strike against North Korea, urging a new generation of whistleblowers to come forward from the Pentagon or White House to stop it.

“It is madly reckless for this president to be doing what he is doing. Whether he is, in some clinical sense, crazy or not, what he is doing is crazy,” says Ellsberg. His book based on his experience as a defence analyst and nuclear war planner, The Doomsday Machine, was published in December.

Back when Snowden was debating whether to leak secret NSA documents, showing the scale of government mass surveillance, he found inspiration in a 2009 documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. After Snowden handed over material to journalists in 2013, Ellsberg was among the first to express support and the two became friends, with Ellsberg visiting Snowden, who is living in exile in Moscow, in 2015.

They have a shared interest in press freedom. Ellsberg cofounded the US-based, not-for-profit Freedom of the Press Foundation, which helped organise the linkup. Snowden, who also serves on the foundation’s board, devotes much of his time in Moscow to developing tools that help journalists protect their communications and sources.

Ewen MacAskill: How has whistleblowing changed in the 40-plus years between your leaks? One of the striking images from The Post is of leaked documents having to be laboriously photocopied, in contrast with today.

Daniel Ellsberg: Certainly, the ability to copy and release hundreds of thousands of files or documents, as Chelsea Manning did, or millions of pages, as Ed Snowden did, was quite impossible then. I was using the cutting-edge technology of the day, Xerox, to do what I did do, which was to copy 7,000 “top secret” pages. That could not have been done before Xerox.

The Guardian for more

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