Integrity in the News: “This is the way democracies work”

Contributed by K. Armstrong

Here’s an illuminating exchange on Democracy Now! between Daniel Ellsberg, the whistle-blower behind the 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, and Stewart Baker, former National Security Agency lawyer. The full debate is well worth watching.

[At 36m 12s of the debate]

DANIEL ELLSBERG: […] Looking at that experience very specifically, Snowden knew that it would be foolish and hopeless for him to try to call attention to this within the channels. He did, I think, exactly right, and others should follow the same, not just when they disagree with policy or object to it, as the president has suggested, but when they feel that it’s unconstitutional, criminal—as, by the way, the years of NSA warrantless spying from 2001 to 2006 with no legal basis were criminal and unconstitutional—and leaked essentially by no one with documents. What Snowden has done is to provide the documents that prove, at last, what was done in the past was clearly illegal, and that that put in question the whole oversight procedure and the good faith of NSA in binding itself to the Constitution. So, I think that he did what he should have done, as all four of those NSA people, who did not do it, have said now, “He did it right. Our approach was hopeless.”

STEWART BAKER: So, I have served in government off and on a long time and at pretty senior levels, and the number of times that I have not persuaded the rest of the government to do things that I think it should do, even things I think it’s morally or legally compelled to do, are pretty substantial. This is the way government works. This is the way democracies work. Individual government employees do not get to say, “I think this is wrong, and therefore it must stop.” You can raise it, and there are plenty of circumstances and plenty of stories of people who have raised issues that have been investigated and have led to changes.

I don’t know the specifics of the cases that you’re talking about. Maybe they were mistreated as a result of the suspicions aroused by what they did internally. But the fact that not every one of their complaints was validated is not surprising. No one in government gets what they want, not even the president. And to say, “Well, I didn’t get what I want, so I’m going to wreck this operation by disclosing it,” is a remarkable and fundamentally anti-democratic view. It’s—the president has called it “narcissistic,” and I think that’s not wrong.

There comes a point at which you say, “I have done what I can to raise this, and I have been assured that in fact this is not illegal.” And the things that he was complaining about had been through court, had been through Congress. We can argue about whether they are legal or not now, or whether they should be legal. I think it’s fair to say that they were blessed by the courts at the time. The things that he disclosed, that were news as opposed to the things that were history—


STEWART BAKER: —were not unlawful at the time. It’s pretty clear the Congress and the courts had approved those things. They may become changed, they may, as a result of this debate, but that’s very different from saying, “I am doing something illegal, and my conscience requires me to disclose it.”

DANIEL ELLSBERG: OK, let me—you’ve raised—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me just ask Mr. Baker—

DANIEL ELLSBERG: You’ve raised important questions, sir. Let me address both of them. First of all, when it comes to being named—called names—narcissistic, megalomaniac and traitor, which is a much more serious name—I’ve had that experience, from the president and the vice president. They were mistaken. But those names are what every whistleblower gets, essentially, whatever the conditions. And if you’re not willing to be called names, I think you can’t carry out your responsibilities to the Constitution.

Now, getting to that, if you’re telling me that there have been times when you dutifully, with your agreement on secrecy, accepted, without exposing to anyone else, policies that, as I heard you, were immoral—and I think you may have said illegal, but let’s just say illegal—I respectfully say you were mistaken, you were, in your judgment. You were acting as nearly all bureaucrats and officials do in that face: They protect their jobs, their careers, their clearances, and indeed their promise, and they don’t think—to keep secrets, and they don’t think twice about what their responsibility might be beyond their responsibility to their agency or to the president.

If you say you’re not familiar with those four NSA names I had, my first thought would be you haven’t followed this very closely. The second thought would be that they haven’t testified before Congress, because despite their extreme expertise in this field, no Congress committee has wanted to hear from them under oath, which they’re urging—which I urge the public to urge committees to bring these people and tell them under oath. If they are mistaken, let them be—let that be exposed. But the fact is that they found that this was unconstitutional. And I think they now feel they didn’t do all that they should have. And if you were in a similar position, then I have to say to you that, like most people in that position, you didn’t do everything you could, just as I didn’t, just as I didn’t when I first had the documents in my hands.

[Watch the full debate.]

About Rachael Wiseman

Dr Rachael Wiseman is a post-doctoral researcher in Philosophy at Durham University.
This entry was posted in Institutions & Integrity, Integrity & Protest and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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