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Edward Snowden: A 21st Century Daniel Ellsberg?

Jun 24, 2013

Credit National Security Agency

Defense contractor employee Edward Snowden says he released information about the National Security Administration's "Prism" data collection program because he believed the government was doing wrong and was not going to tell the American people.

That's very similar to the rationale of Daniel Ellsberg, the Defense Department employee who in 1971 released the so-called "Pentagon Papers," a secret history of United States political and military involvement in Vietnam.

But, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project" says the similarity between the two men pretty much ends there.

"Ellsberg was the assistant to the assistant Secretary of Defense," explained McBride. "Snowden is way down on the totem pole. And when you think about information, these days, and who has access to it -- even secret information -- Snowden had access to this information and he was a contractor. He was just some pawn in this big system."

Also, when The New York Times prepared to publish the Pentagon Papers, the government went to court to try and block them.

The government did not do that with The Guardian newspaper and Snowden's NSA revelations.

"I think the government has gotten a lot smarter about picking its battles," McBride said. "These days the government goes directly after the leakers, like Edward Snowden or Daniel Ellsburg, rather than the journalists who are publishing the information."

So, is Snowden the 21st Century version of Daniel Ellsburg?

McBride said we just don't know yet.

"We're not going to know the answer to that question till 10 or 15 years from now, when we can look back on everything we have yet to learn about these secret programs and figure out whether this is truly an act of whistleblowing or if it's something less than that."