By publicly identifying himself as the leaker behind last week's NSA revelations, Edward Snowden has secured his place in media and political history.
ABC News called the leak "one of the greatest national security leaks in recent American history," and in publishing his identity, the Guardian compared Snowden, a 29-year-old contractor with the NSA, to Daniel Ellsberg, perhaps the most famous leaker in history. It was almost exactly 42 years earlier, on June 13th, 1971, that the first batch of the Pentagon Papers were published in the New York Times.
Like Ellsberg, Snowden's leaks have led to a public response from the president of the United States. Moreover, he is all but certain to face the same criminal prosecution that Ellsberg faced, and that Bradley Manning, the other candidate for "most famous leaker" status, is currently facing.
Like Snowden, Ellsberg was an insider, a man who worked for the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon before deciding that he could no longer tolerate what he saw as the lies of the American government in Vietnam, and used the media to get his message out.
"I spent years keeping my mouth shut as presidents lied to us and kept these secrets," Ellsberg told "Democracy Now" in 2010. "I shouldn’t have done that. And that’s why I admire someone even who’s accused, like Bradley Manning ... of actually risking their own personal freedom in order to tell the truth. I think they’re being better citizens and showing their patriotism in a better way than when they keep their mouths shut."
Snowden had similar things to say in his interview with the Guardian:
"I'm willing to sacrifice all of that because I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
Trevor Timm, a member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tweeted Ellsberg's reaction to the news about Snowden on Sunday:
I was just with Dan Ellsberg as he learned out about Edward Snowden. He called Snowden a hero, said he's been waiting for him for 40 years.
— Trevor Timm (@trevortimm) June 9, 2013
On Monday, Ellsberg wrote an op-ed for the Guardian expanding on that praise (emphasis added):
In my estimation, there has not been in American history a more important leak than Edward Snowden's release of NSA material – and that definitely includes the Pentagon Papers 40 years ago.
He also told CNN why he said he'd been waiting "decades" for someone like Snowden to emerge. "Decades in a sense that of seeing somebody who really was prepared to risk his life for his country as a civilian," he said. "To show the kind of courage that we expect of people on the battlefield."
Ellsberg is regarded mostly as a noble figure these days; it remains to be seen how Snowden will be viewed. A BuzzFeed analysis on Sunday found that those calling him a "hero" outnumbered those calling him a "traitor" by 30 to 1 on Twitter, but that is hardly a representative sample of the country at large.
However the story unfolds, Snowden has in all likelihood added his name to a select group of leakers who became nearly as famous as the secrets they revealed.