National Security

One Era's Traitor Is Another Era's Whistle-Blower

How the media covered national-security leaks in Daniel Ellsberg's day.

When the Guardian named Edward Snowden as the source behind a series of leaks last week on National Security Agency surveillance programs, the backlash was swift. In a rare show of bipartisanship, several members of Congress -- including House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton -- labeled the 29-year-old contractor a traitor. The Guardian's profile, meanwhile, characterized Snowden as "one of America's most consequential whistleblowers" and compared him to Daniel Ellsberg.

The Guardian isn't alone in comparing Snowden to Ellsberg, who leaked a secret Pentagon-authored history of the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, to reporters at the New York Times and Washington Post in 1971. Over the past 40 years, Ellsberg has defended his actions, saying that he hoped the documents would bring an end to the conflict. His conscientious objection to the war mirrors Snowden's stated reasons for leaking the NSA documents. As he told the Guardian, "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

But the reaction to Snowden's leaks is in many ways different than the response Ellsberg received when the Pentagon Papers were published four decades ago. Then, politicians went out of their way to be associated with Ellsberg's disclosures. Sen. George McGovern, who was running for president at the time, told the New York Times that he suggested Ellsberg make the Pentagon Papers available to "a respectable newspaper" and that he did not release the Pentagon Papers himself because it would have seemed too political, according to an Aug. 1, 1971 article. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's muted criticism was that he hoped the "man who leaked the report will be forgotten." Retired Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did write in an editorial that Ellsberg had committed a "traitorous act" and "didn't know what he was doing to the security of the United States." But while that language may be par for the course today, it was an unusually scathing indictment at the time.

When Ellsberg did face harsh criticism, it was often personal in nature. Consider this July 23, 1971 letter to the editor of LIFE magazine on Ellsberg, who had served in Vietnam as a State Department official:

This Ellsberg is too much to believe! He was so bloodthirsty in Vietnam that, though a civilian, he just had to grab up a rifle. Then, he was so concerned with Vietnamese welfare that he stole his own government's documents while a trusted employee! I have seen this kind of instability in women's bridge club politics.

Ellsberg was also accused of being a narcissist in search of a book deal -- and within months of the New York Times publishing the Pentagon Papers, he had sold a manuscript about the Vietnam War that he had reportedly been shopping to publishers for years. It was hard to deny his rising profile. "Certainly Ellsberg himself has gained a personal celebrity, or notoriety, that some critics argue was an original motivation. Public fame will no doubt continue to provide him platforms from which he can press his own ideas," Walter Pincus, a stalwart defender of Ellsberg, wrote in New York Magazine on Aug. 16, 1971.

These criticisms hounded Ellsberg. A year after the leaks, a syndicated editorial called Ellsberg "the Ph.D. enfant terrible" whose actions "assured [him] a niche in the pantheon of radical chic." One paper scoffed at Ellsberg's appearance at the 1972 Republican National Convention: "Apparently still after the limelight he sought so avidly in the Pentagon Papers case, Dr. Ellsberg claimed new sensations to reveal."

The Nixon administration also tried to discredit Ellsberg on a personal level. Nixon's private investigation squad, the "Plumbers," broke into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office in search of juicy details of his private life; they later testified to a grand jury about Ellsberg cavorting "with females of foreign birth and extraction," which constituted "a danger signal to anybody in the counter-espionage field," and engaging in "some rather bizarre sexual practices."

Snowden has already been the target of personal attacks as well. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has called him "a grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison," while New York Times columnist David Brooks has characterized Snowden as a loner representative of the "growing share of young men in their 20s who are living technological existences in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult family commitments."

Still, Ellsberg enjoyed considerable public support for his actions -- both in and out of government. Sen. Bob Dole, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, worried that prosecuting Ellsberg "could be politically harmful to the Republican Party," and a government attorney told TIME, "what the Government has done in this case is a terribly unpopular thing. We are vilified on all sides." The case against Ellsberg was eventually thrown out after the Plumbers' burglary and illegal government wiretapping were revealed -- actions that offended "a sense of justice" and "incurably infected the prosecution of this case," the judge in the Pentagon Papers case declared in 1973.

Today, the fault for the leak -- and its potential consequences -- falls to the leaker. In Brooks's column, he writes that Snowden "betrayed the cause of open government. Every time there is a leak like this, the powers that be close the circle of trust a little tighter. They limit debate a little more."

Forty years ago, however, that criticism was leveled not so much at Ellsberg but at the New York Times. "When publishers and editors decide on their own what security laws to obey," Sen. Barry Goldwater said in response to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, "it puts them in the same category as those radicals who foment civil and criminal disobedience of laws they disagree with for moral reasons." Rep. Samuel Stratton called the New York Times and Washington Post "un-American" for publishing the report. The Nixon administration, meanwhile, rushed a court case to halt the serialized publication of Pentagon Paper reports to the Supreme Court, which decided that the newspapers could continue publishing the stories because the government could not demonstrate that disclosing the Defense Department's study would pose "grave and irreparable" danger to national security. But in his dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "I strongly urge, and sincerely hope, that these two newspapers will be fully aware of their ultimate responsibilities to the United States of America." If the publication of the Pentagon Papers resulted in the deaths of soldiers, damage to U.S. alliances, the "prolongation of the war and of further delay in the freeing of United States prisoners, then the Nation's people will know where the responsibility for these sad consequences rests," he added.

The critique echoed inside the publishing world as well. A LIFE magazine staff editorial highlighted the government's right to challenge the New York Times and Washington Post:

In the case of the Pentagon papers, the government has the ultimate remedy of prosecuting the Times, as well as other newspapers that have published portions of the documents, if it can prove that the publication did endanger national security. On the basis of the first three lengthy instalments [sic] that appeared in the Times and the articles published elsewhere, the disclosure of the material does not appear to constitute such a threat.

Speaking at the 1971 meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association, Martin Hayden, editor of the Detroit News, was less sanguine. "If every pamphleteer could publish a plan of a secret submarine or a list of foreign agents abroad, obtained from any peddler of secrets, I don't think the public would stand for it," he told conference. He was "scared to death," he continued, that the further publication of leaks would prompt Congress "to regulate or control the press."

This time around, few lawmakers are blaming the press for the NSA leaks. (Branding a British paper "un-American" just doesn't have the same ring to it.) Rep. Mike Rogers's criticism of the Guardian's reporting on the NSA's surveillance apparatus was simply that while journalist Glenn Greenwald "says that he's got it all and now is an expert on the program," he "doesn't have a clue how this thing works. Neither did the person who released just enough information to be literally dangerous." Rep. Peter King is alone, so far, in calling for the prosecution of the reporters involved in breaking the story, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper, "On something of this magnitude, there is an obligation both moral but also legal, I believe, against a reporter disclosing something that would so severely compromise national security." While the Justice Department is reportedly weighing its options for how best to extradite and prosecute Snowden, there have been no reports of a potential case against the Guardian.

As for Ellsberg himself, he's come out as an admirer of Snowden: "I think there has not been a more significant or helpful leak or unauthorized disclosure in American history ever ... and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers," he told the Daily Beast. The open question is how, in a post-9/11 climate that differs in many ways from the Vietnam era, Snowden's fate may diverge from Ellsberg's. 

The Guardian via Getty Images


Missing Mahmoud

Don’t snicker. Once President Ahmadinejad is gone, there’ll be no one left to stand up to Iran's mullahs.

What's that saying? You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone? Well, after eight long years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, I'm willing to bet that even those of us who loathe the man are going to end up missing him -- not just because of the comedy he provided with his bellicose rhetoric and his inane populism, but because he may have been the last, best hope of stripping the clerical regime of its "God-given" right to rule Iran.

Back in 2011, I argued that those who oppose the clerical regime in Iran and who yearn for a more secular nation that looks for inspiration in the glories of its Persian past instead of its Islamist present may have an unexpected champion in their corner: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I was not suggesting that Ahmadinejad is some sort of democracy icon or that he is even a good guy, let alone a competent president -- though he is far more politically sophisticated than his critics generally assume. It is a Western fallacy that "more secular" necessarily means "more free." But the fact remains that no president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy, and so brazenly tried to channel the government's decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran.

Under Ahmadinejad, the presidency has become a legitimate base of power in a way it never had been before. That may explain why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lately been threatening to get rid of the office altogether.

At the time, I was skewered for the article by many in the Iranian-American community. My critics did not object to the content, they simply hated that I said something remotely positive about a man who had become the poster child for everything loathsome about the Iranian regime. I was equally taken to task by some American journalists, who seem incapable of viewing Ahmadinejad through any other lens save his absurd and odious views on Israel. 

Today, Ahmadinejad's unprecedented challenge to the unchecked powers of the supreme leader is something even those who can't stand the man recognize and grudgingly admire. And now, as Ahmadinejad is about to be replaced by one of a claque of Ayatollah Khamenei's fawning admirers, we may start to think a little more kindly of these last few years.

The mullahs' conflict with Ahmadinejad goes to the very heart of what constitutes political legitimacy in the Islamic Republic. In Iran's byzantine government, the elected president is supposed to represent the sovereignty of the people while the unelected supreme leader represents the sovereignty of God. In practice, however, nearly all levers of political power rest in the hands of the supreme leader, leaving the president with very little control over policy decisions.

That is just how the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wanted it. Khomeini's religio-political concept of velayat-e faqih, or "guardianship of the jurist" argued that in the absence of the Muslim messiah (known as the Mahdi), the powers of government should rest with the messiah's representatives on Earth -- that is, the ayatollahs. After creating the position of supreme leader, Khomeini named himself to the office and began accumulating absolute religious, economic, and political authority, paving the way for complete clerical dominance.

This clerical dominance extended even into the elected branches of government. The clergy made up more than half of the representatives in Iran's first two parliaments, though that number has gradually declined to less than a quarter today. With the exception of the Islamic Republic's first and second presidents -- who served a total of less than two years in office before being impeached and assassinated, respectively -- every president elected in post-revolutionary Iran before 2005 had been a cleric.

Ahmadinejad broke that clerical precedent when he trounced his opponent, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, by painting him as a wealthy, corrupt, out-of-touch mullah with no appreciation for the common man's concerns. In contrast to the fantastically wealthy Rafsanjani, whose speeches were peppered with Arabic words and Quranic recitations, Ahmadinejad dressed simply, spoke colloquial Persian, and clothed himself in a provincial religiosity deliberately stripped of clerical learning.

The strategy was so successful that Ahmadinejad won 62 percent of the vote in the run-off election against Rafsanjani, who mustered a mere 36 percent. Nor did Ahmadinejad back away from his controversial public persona after taking office -- long before his sham reelection in 2009, he had begun distancing himself from the clerical elite and consolidating power in the presidency. Ironically, it was after the so-called Green Movement uprising was violently suppressed and his reelection staunchly supported by Khamenei that Ahmadinejad's anti-clerical agenda became more pronounced.

In his second term, Ahmadinejad steadily chipped away at the clergy's religious, economic, and political control. First, he started questioning the mullahs' self-proclaimed status as the arbiters of Islamic morality -- and especially its obsession with proper Islamic dress. He condemned the actions of the country's dreaded morality police, saying, "it is an insult to ask a man and woman walking on the street about their relation to each other." Ahmadinejad's media advisor, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was even arrested for printing articles criticizing the law forcing women to wear veils.

The president then began repeatedly criticizing the clergy for their enormous wealth, which stood in stark contrast to most Iranians' economic suffering under international sanctions. In a surprise move, Ahmadinejad curtailed the amount of money that the government pays to religious institutions, which have ballooned over the past three decades into a source of tremendous personal enrichment for many in the clerical elite.

Ahmadinejad also took a number of bold steps to wrest political power away from the mullahs. He ceased attending meetings of the Expediency Council, one of Iran's many Orwellian committees whose purpose is to protect the political interests of the clergy. When Iran's oil minister stepped down, Ahmadinejad took over the ministry himself until a permanent replacement could be found, establishing an extremely significant presidential precedent in the process.

Even in those cases when his attempts to consolidate power were foiled by Khamenei and his allies, Ahmadinejad showed a brazen unwillingness to bend to the supreme leader's whims. When Khamenei overruled the dismissal of his intelligence chief, Heider Moslehi, Ahmadinejad went on a week-long "strike," refusing to attend cabinet meetings in protest. When Khamenei rejected the appointment of his close ally, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as first vice president, Ahmadinejad made him chief of staff instead -- an arguably more influential position that did not require Khamenei's approval. When Khamenei balked at Ahmadinejad's habit of appointing "special envoys" -- an attempt to sidestep the Foreign Ministry, which is under Khamenei's control -- Ahmadinejad simply changed the envoys into "advisors" and carried on.

But Ahmadinejad's challenge to the clerical regime goes beyond any single skirmish with the supreme leader. Perhaps more important is his very public questioning of the foundation of the Islamic Republic's political and religious authority. "Administering the country should not be left to the [supreme] leader, the religious scholars, and other [clerics]," the president said in 2011. Mashaei went further, flatly arguing that an Islamic government is not capable of running a vast and populous country like Iran.

These are astounding statements for the president and his closest advisor to make. Indeed, they are downright seditious -- it would be like the president of the United States questioning the viability of constitutional democracy. No one in the Iranian government -- not even the most liberal reformists in parliament -- has ever dared to overtly challenge the divine right of the supreme leader to run the country. But for Ahmadinejad, direct assaults on the velayat-e faqih have become a standard part of his rhetoric.

Consider, for example, Ahmadinejad's much-maligned claims of being in direct communication with the Mahdi. Such statements are not the mad ravings of a religious fanatic -- they are a public repudiation of the entire system upon which the Islamic Republic was built. After all, if a layperson like Ahmadinejad can directly consult with the Mahdi, then what use are the ayatollahs? And if the clerics are not the only ones with a direct line to the Mahdi, why have they been given political powers over the Mahdi's government? As Mashaei put it, "Running a country is like a horse race, but the problem is that [the clerics] are not horse racers."

Khamenei immediately grasped the challenge that Ahmadinejad and Mashaei's statements represented for religious rule, issuing a fatwa announcing that he and only he represents the Mahdi. But despite the backlash from the clergy, Ahmadinejad has continued to use the president's bully pulpit to push for a new ethos of "Persian nationalism" over Iran's Islamic identity. He has called for an "Iranian Islam" that contrasts with the theocratic ideology pushed by the clerical regime -- what some Iranians refer to derisively as "Arabism."

Ahmadinejad has also broken a taboo among Iranian politicians by heaping praise on Cyrus the Great, the first and greatest king of the ancient Persian Empire. This nostalgia for Iran's pre-Islamic past has led to strict warnings from Khamenei's allies, with one conservative parliamentarian saying that the president "should be aware that he is obligated to promote Islam and not ancient Iran, and if he fails to fulfill his obligation, he will lose the support and trust of the Muslim nation of Iran."

However, Ahmadinejad's Persian nationalism has proven enormously popular in Iran. It has even led to a new political movement in the country, one which the clerical regime's most fanatical supporters decry as a "deviant movement" and "a third pillar of sedition." Ahmadinejad, for his part, has dismissed his critics as the kind of people who go "running to Qom [the religious capital of Iran] for every instruction."

With this description, Ahmadinejad could be speaking of any of Iran's presidential frontrunners. After all, the one thing that the top contenders to replace him have in common is their comical obeisance to the supreme leader. Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili recently argued that "those with the slightest disagreement with the supreme leader have no place in our discourse" and that  "all our attention should be devoted to listening to what our leader wants."

Such professions of mindless obedience seem to be the only way to secure the presidency in the coming election. Ali Akbar Velayati, another presidential frontrunner, has said that his greatest strength as president would be his willingness to unquestioningly obey whatever the supreme leader tells him to do: "I see this as a strong point.... I believe that having a person who has the last word and makes the final decision is in the country's political interest."

Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the brutish mayor of Tehran, has boasted about standing up for the supreme leader's right to rule by personally bashing in the heads of student protesters who question it. "When it is necessary to come to the street and hit [the protesters] with batons I am there with a baton and I am proud of that," he said.

In fact, none of the current presidential candidates, not even the moderate Hassan Rouhani, who, despite his brash criticisms of the "excesses" of the clerical regime is himself a mullah, seem too eager to carry Ahmadinejad's mantle of anti-clericalism into their administrations.

Barring some major surprise, which Khamenei has done everything in his power to prevent, one of the three sycophants listed above will likely be the next president of Iran. That will also mark the end to Ahmadinejad's unprecedented challenge to the guiding philosophy of the Islamic Republic. As clerical control over the Iranian government becomes more severe, those who blame the mullahs for everything wrong in Iran may one day come to miss the little man with the unkempt beard and rumpled jacket who dared defy the Mahdi's representative on Earth.

Allison Joyce/Getty Images