[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]
On historical parallels that contextualize two contrasting sides to the 21st century whistleblower, and how to reconcile the pair.
Not long after CIA and NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden revealed classified documents to a group of journalists in an effort to blow the whistle on illegal and unconstitutional government programs, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. In the excerpts from my new book in that last hyperlinked post, I argue at length for the multiple layers of exclusionary, discriminatory, mythic patriotism that precipitated and are embodied by the Espionage Act and its complement, the Sedition Act of 1918; while many of those elements have been dismantled over the years, others remain fully in force more than 100 years later. Those layers help remind us that “espionage” has always been tied to xenophobic and bigoted visions of particular American communities; while there’s no doubt that Snowden knew the risks he was taking when he released the documents (as all this week’s whistleblowers did when they took their actions), we need to be very careful to go along with charges under the Espionage Act without a full engagement with the histories surrounding that law.
At the same time, Snowden’s actions after he blew the whistle, and for the more than 8 years since, link him to a distinct historical context: the connections between American spies and Russia. The Russia to which Snowden fled seeking asylum in June 2013 and where he has remained ever since, gaining permanent resident status in October 2020, is not the Cold War Soviet Union with which alleged spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg worked, of course. But not only is Vladimir Putin’s Russia just as much of a hostile adversary to the US on the world stage, it’s also one that has repeatedly and prominently taken covert action against the US, including the repeated efforts at election hacking that have taken place during Snowden’s time in Russia. Snowden has claimed that he is not cooperating with Putin’s Russian government and intelligence services, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. But I likewise have no reason to disbelieve that Putin sees Snowden as a potential ally, as someone who is at least similarly opposed to the US government; authoritarian regimes don’t generally grant permanent residency to those they view as dissidents, after all.
It might seem that these two historical contexts can’t comfortably coexist—the first challenges the very idea of “espionage” as it’s been constructed; while the second notes that some Americans have apparently worked as spies on behalf of one of the nation’s most longstanding global foes. I can’t lie, Edward Snowden does indeed seem both to contain and to produce conflicted and contradictory layers. But so does American history, not only overall but also and especially when it comes to nuanced categories like spies—and, at least a good bit of the time, whistleblowers. It’s very important not to conflate those two categories, and I’m not in any way trying to do so here. But in the case of a whistleblower like Snowden from within the intelligence community, and one who subsequently moved to another nation whose intelligence community has been as opposed to the US’s as any over this decade, it’s fair to say that the category of spy is also part of the conversation—which then requires us to grapple with the history of that category and its construction, as well as with however we might or might not apply it to aspects of Snowden’s ongoing story. I don’t have any answers here, but rather complicated and crucial questions that this particular 21st century whistleblower forces us to engage.
Last WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?