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Were Snowden’s Actions Justified? Daniel Ellsberg, Michael Mukasey Debate

When Edward Snowden exposed the existence of some of the National Security Agency’s intelligence gathering operations, did he help or harm America? Jeffrey Brown gets debate from Daniel Ellsberg, co-author of the famous internal Defense Department study "The Pentagon Papers," and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

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    And now to a debate on Snowden, the government’s response to his actions, and the programs he revealed.

    Daniel Ellsberg was tried under the Espionage Act after leaking the so-called Pentagon Papers, a classified report which he co-wrote as a military analyst that was critical of U.S. decision-making during the Vietnam War.

    The case against him was ultimately dismissed in 1973. And Michael Mukasey was attorney general during the George W. Bush administration.

    Let’s get on the table first what you both think about the programs that were revealed by Edward Snowden.

    Michael Mukasey, you have written that real damage was done by Snowden. Please explain.

  • MICHAEL MUKASEY, former attorney general:

    I think reel damage was done in two respects. One is by disclosing the details of the programs and second is by showing both our anniversaries adversaries and our would-be potential friends, both allies and people who might provide human intelligence, that we can’t keep secrets.

    I think that’s — those two things damage us tremendously.


    And, Daniel Ellsberg, what is your biggest concern about the NSA program?

  • DANIEL ELLSBERG, former State Department official:

    Pardon me, but listening to that just now, I have to smile at the thought that our friends will be very upset about the thought that Snowden had exposed that we were spying on them, which he has done.

    I must say, I think a lot of them would be envious of our capability. I think Russia and China would be envious of our capability, the NSA capabilities. It’s exactly what they want in countries that aren’t exactly democratic.

    My concern is that the very existence of this kind of capability chills free speech in a disastrous way. I cannot see how there can be investigative reporting of the national security community, when the identity, the location, the metadata, and really the contents of every communication between a journalist and every source, every journalist, every source, is known to the executive branch, especially one that has been prosecuting twice as many journalist — sources as any president before.

    Moreover, my even larger concern is, I don’t see how democracy can survive when one branch, the executive branch, has all the personal communications of every member of Congress, and every judge, every member of the judiciary, as well as the press, the fourth estate that I have just been describing.

    I don’t see how the blackmail capability that’s involved there can be — will not be abused, as it has happened in the past, including to me, by the way, and to other — and to journalists.



    Without that freedom to investigative or bring checks and balances, we won’t have a real democracy. That’s my concern.


    All right, let me — let’s let Mr. Mukasey respond.


    That is a hysterically inaccurately portrayal of what information is available to the government.

    What is available are two kinds of information. One is so-called metadata, which is simply a pile of numbers, numbers called and times. They are not even associated with particular people.

    And the only purpose of having that is to have a database against which to check suspicious numbers from abroad that are documented to belong to suspected terrorists under the supervision of a court and to query that database.

    That database consists of millions and millions of numbers. That’s all. And in 2012, it was queried 300 times by the 15 people who are authorized to query it. That is a microscopic amount of use, although an important amount of use.

    So far as surveillance conducted abroad, our friends spy on us, and we spy on them. That is an open secret and has been for years. And I seriously doubt that any of them would be either surprised or actually disturbed to hear it.

    And to say that the Russians and the Chinese would like to have access to these techniques is to prove my point. The Russians and the Chinese now do have access to them, thanks to them having access to Mr. Snowden’s computer, whether he likes it or not, because he was in China. The Chinese were perfectly capable of taking what was in his computer. And I’m sure the Russians already have it as well.


    So, Daniel Ellsberg, what word would you use to describe Edward Snowden? Is he a whistle-blower? Is he a criminal, what?


    First of all, he is certainly a whistle-blower by any reasonable standards.

    If I’m a whistle-blower, he is a whistle-blower. I’m glad to hear, by the way, that there is some dispute about that because in my day whistle-blower wasn’t an honorific term.

    It was more usually equated with traitor. So, there has been progress in that way. Now it’s something to argue about, about whether this person is really a whistle-blower.

    And I would say there is no question that he is and I’m confident that he is not a traitor, any more than I am. And I’m not, or Mr. Mukasey.

    By the way, when Mr. Mukasey says that the Russians now have access to what he has, I believe, actually, what Mr. Snowden, Edward Snowden, has told as of today, former Republican Sen. Gordon Humphrey, he assured them that the people are wrong, that he used to teach computer security to DIA, and that he was confident that even our own NSA wasn’t capable of getting the secrets.

    I think it’s simply mistaken to say that he has either intentionally or inadvertently given that away. But in terms of the question of why we’re spying on our friends, I don’t think we’re spying on the Chinese in order to find Muslim terrorists, may I suggest.

    I think that what has been revealed about the degree of listening in we’re doing to the rest of the world is that that’s hardly a major purpose in spying on France, or Germany, or elsewhere, any more than it is here.

    The benefit to the government, the executive branch — it’s not a benefit to us as a public — of finding out, in the case of the Chinese trade negotiations, but any kind of negotiations they want, any kind of dissent.

    I want to say very specifically what doesn’t seem to have come out. Russell Tice, a 20-year veteran not only of DIA and CIA, but of the NSA, has stated, as have every other NSA whistle-blower, William Binney, Thomas Drake, Kirk Wiebe, have all stated that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that in fact NSA has not only the capability, but is now collecting and storing all the content of all these communications. So, to say it’s just metadata is I think absolutely mistaken.


    Let me let Michael Mukasey respond to that.

    But, also , I would like to know how you characterize Edward Snowden and the U.S. efforts to get him back?


    Well, I guess I join with Mr. Ellsberg in saying he’s not a traitor, but only because he hasn’t committed treason as defined in the Constitution.

    He is, however, a criminal. By his own admission, he has violated at least one, probably two or perhaps three sections of the Espionage Act. And he ought to be sent back.


    Hold on. Hold on, Mr. Ellsberg.


    I’m really disturbed by hearing a former attorney general describe Mr. Snowden as a criminal.


    Oh, come on.


    He’s an accused person.


    He is an admitted criminal. He admitted that he stole.


    Just a second, Mr. Ellsberg.


    Go ahead, Mr. Mukasey.


    Am I a criminal? Was I a traitor?


    Mr. Ellsberg, hold on a minute, please.

    Let me let Mr. Mukasey respond.


    That’s outrageous.


    Nobody says you were a traitor, Mr. Ellsberg.

    Nobody says you were a traitor. Nobody said it then. Nobody responsible said it then. Nobody says it now.


    Was I a criminal?


    Mr. Ellsberg, please. I have to insist that you let him respond.


    The fact that you admitted it doesn’t make it not a crime.

    And you did it in a very responsible way. I will say that. The stuff that you stole was of negligible importance, because the most recent stuff that you stole was no more recent than three years old. And you preceded what — your disclosures by offering it to two senators, both of whom turned you down, because they didn’t want to be the people to disclose it.

    George McGovern and William Fulbright both refused to take that stuff and disclose it. You disclosed it instead to The New York Times.


    All right, Mr. Ellsberg, just in our last minute, please come back to the Snowden case. What would you like to see happen? What would you like to see happen now?


    I will tell you exactly.

    I would like to see Russell Tice, William Binney, Thomas Drake, and Kirk Wiebe testify before Congress under oath as to their knowledge that they are — these programs are unconstitutional and criminal, which is why two of them resigned from the NSA.

    They have asked to testify and they have been ignored by Congress. That is exactly the debate that Edward Snowden wanted to have. And it should take place in a new investigation in Congress, not in the Intelligence Committees, which have been totally co-opted, and obviously not involving the FISA court, which is essentially a joke, for how many hundreds of pages it’s put out, and its thousands and thousands of acceptance. It’s clearly a rubber-stamp court. We need to change that.


    And, very briefly, Mr. Mukasey, what would you like to see happen?


    I would like to see happen what happens in any other criminal case. That is to have Mr. Snowden sent back here and have him stand trial.

    And so far as congressional hearings, all this material was gathered pursuant to statutes passed by Congress, under the supervision of an Article 3 court, and at the direction of the executive. So all three branches of the government were involved in it.


    Michael Mukasey and Daniel Ellsberg, thank you both very much.


    Thank you. 

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