If Ellsberg is a hero, why not Snowden?

There is a new film The Post starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and directed by Stephen Spielberg that resurrects once again the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers and the legal case that was won by the Washington Post and other newspapers that prevented the suppression of them. Nick Gillespie writes that in an interview with the BBC Arabic service’s Sam Asi, Spielberg, Hanks, and to a lesser extent Streep, praise Ellsberg as a hero for his actions but avoiding doing so with Edward Snowden.

Why? Because for their generation (i.e., close to mine) Richard Nixon was the president who condemned Ellsberg’s actions and all good liberals hated Nixon, so praising Ellsberg is a no-brainer for them. But Snowden exposed the actions of Barack Obama, a hero to many liberals, and thus liberals feel conflicted, even though Obama went much further than Nixon in attacking whistleblowers, invoking the draconian Espionage Act against them which even Nixon did not do against Ellsberg.

Despite massive political and legal pressure not to do so, Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham (played by Hanks and Streep), pushed ahead with printing secret documents stolen by Daniel Ellsberg, winning a massive victory for press freedom and almost certainly shortening the Vietnam War.

Of course that was the right thing to do, Hanks tells Sam Asi. But when Asi brings up Edward Snowden, who in 2013 revealed massive, warrantless, secret surveillance of all sorts of electronic communications among American citizens, Hanks gets tongue-tied.

When asked whether Snowden is “a traitor or not,” Hanks waves off the question, joking that it’s above his “pay grade.”

Asi makes the point that Hanks, along with Spielberg and the movie’s other star, Meryl Streep, were public supporters of Barack Obama, whose secret programs Snowden opposed, and Hillary Clinton, who called Snowden a traitor. He then asks Spielberg why Hollywood was silent during Obama’s unprecedented reliance on the World War I–era Espionage Act. Obama pursued nine prosecutions, compared to just three since the law’s start under Woodrow Wilson. Snowden’s revelations were “different for me,” says Spielberg, because Snowden simply had information about agencies with the capabilities of spying on individuals and infringing on our privacy, while “Daniel Ellsberg was trying to stop the Vietnam War.” Ellsberg was a “hero,” says Spielberg, who refuses to call Snowden by the same term. “I don’t have the same information.” Streep, speaking at the end of the clip, at least grants that it’s good and “valid” that the programs and activities Snowden unmasked are now in public view.

I have seen the same thing many times in my circles. Liberals just can’t seem to get past the fact that Snowden’s actions exposed their hero Obama and so they either condemn Snowden or duck the issue. What makes it awkward for them is that Ellsberg himself is a great admirer of what Snowden did, has publicly praised him many times, and wishes that more would act like him.


  1. says

    Ellsberg was instrumental in creating the SIOP and some other cold war monstrousities. Unlike Snowden, his actions made the world a more dangerous place, before he turned whistle-blower.

  2. Glor says

    See also the sudden change of heart on part of a lot of dems when it came to drone warfare, the need to prosecute torturers, military tribunals, etc etc. around Jan20 2009.
    I sometimes wonder how much of practical, day-to-day political opinions come down to “circle the wagons around my dude”. Most of the time, I don’t wanna know.

  3. lanir says

    Well that’s only the most blatant screw-up Obama’s administration did and one of the ones that most clearly and publicly saw them destroying lives for no good reason (sorry, covering your own ass after you screw up badly is not a good reason for wrecking someone else’s life). It’s also the one that ties most of the other screw-ups together. I think the only stuff it leaves out is the Justice Department giving a free pass to torturers and their high-rolling buddies in the financial world (which is every bank bigger than Abacus apparently -- side note: Frontline on PBS has an interesting take on that Abacus: Small Enough to Jail) which will run again on TV Tuesday night).

    It’s nice that we recognize the hypocrisy of supporting someone just because you identify them as being on “your team” (they’re really not, politics at that level doesn’t care about any of us, none of us are rich enough to be noticeable). Lots of people cheered when Moore was defeated in Alabama for example. But when it gets closer to home too many people do the exact same thing they’re happy to ridicule Moore’s supporters for: abandon logic and morals to hand a blank check to someone who is clearly behaving badly.

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