01/15/2014 07:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Snowden, the Pentagon Papers and COINTELPRO


President Barack Obama is scheduled to give a speech later this week where he will outline changes to be made to the National Security Agency and their ability to collect information. This will be a pivotal speech in the realm of national security and how the federal government operates, especially with regards to the privacy of its own citizens. There is no mistaking the truth, however, that this presidential shift in attitude has come as the result of one man's actions: Edward Snowden. Without Snowden's revelations about the N.S.A., we simply wouldn't be at this point in history.

Obama initially reacted to the Snowden document dump with a downright laughable statement, that he "welcomed this public conversation" about the proper reach of governmental spying. He did not in fact welcome the conversation, but he was trying to react to being forced to have such a conversation as best he could. A presidential commission was named to look into the question and report its recommendations. Obama is not waiting for the commission's final report, and is going ahead this week with his own suggestions for changing the way the federal government conducts such surveillance.

None of this would have happened without the actions of Snowden, of course. He has been described as anything from a "patriot" to a "traitor" in both the media and the public at large. Either he bravely exposed government wrongdoing to the media, which would never have otherwise had access to this information, or he violated the law and stole secret documents, for which he should be punished. This wide disparity in how Snowden is seen reflects how people feel about the disclosures themselves, to a large extent. To those who want to see the government's reach curtailed, Snowden did the right thing. To those who want the government to continue what it has been doing, Snowden did a very wrong thing.

But most of those making the case that Snowden should "return to the United States and face the music in a court of law" regularly offer up (as an example for how whistleblowers should act) the story of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. This is a parallel case, we are told, and since Ellsberg was exonerated in the courts, it shows how true whistleblowers are not punished for their actions. But a better parallel exists, which should be getting more attention these days. Especially since a book was just published about this case.

Ellsberg exposed the American government's war strategy in Vietnam. Ellsberg's document release showed how the Pentagon had essentially been lying to the American public about how the war was going and our chances for success. These are weighty matters, and did involve misleading the public about the biggest foreign policy issue of the day. But nothing in the Pentagon Papers dealt with how the federal government was secretly running intelligence operations on the American public.

A few months before the Pentagon Papers were made public, however, there was another document dump which would have profound implications on government policy. A group calling itself the "Citizens Commission to Investigate the F.B.I." illegally broke into a federal office in a Pennsylvania suburb and made off with every document they could lay their hands on. These documents were then leaked to the media, which resulted in the eventual disclosure of a program called COINTELPRO (for "Counter Intelligence Program"). The F.B.I. had, since the 1950s, been regularly trying to infiltrate and influence what they considered "subversive" American groups. This included just about anyone who was anti-war, up to and including Martin Luther King Jr. Not only was the F.B.I. spying on these groups, they were also running all sorts of "dirty tricks" operations, including sending death threats and blackmail warnings in an effort to neutralize any group J. Edgar Hoover didn't approve of. The exposure of such tactics by the federal government eventually led to a congressional committee (the "Church Committee") which reformed the entire American intelligence services as a result.

The COINTELPRO papers leak is, therefore, a much better example to use when talking about Edward Snowden today. The information leaked was similar, unlike the Pentagon Papers (which had nothing to do with domestic surveillance at all). The Church Committee's final report concluded with a scathing denunciation of what had been allowed to take place:

Too many people have been spied upon by too many Government agencies and too much information has been collected. The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power. The Government, operating primarily through secret informants, but also using other intrusive techniques such as wiretaps, microphone "bugs", surreptitious mail opening, and break-ins, has swept in vast amounts of information about the personal lives, views, and associations of American citizens. Investigations of groups deemed potentially dangerous -- and even of groups suspected of associating with potentially dangerous organizations -- have continued for decades, despite the fact that those groups did not engage in unlawful activity.

There's another parallel which needs to be drawn as well. What Snowden did was clearly illegal, on the face of it. So was stealing federal files in the dead of night, back in 1971. In both cases, nobody profited from the leaks, which were made to respectable news organizations. The only purpose of the leaks was to expose wrongdoing to the public. But the members of the Citizens Commission to Investigate the F.B.I. were never made public until this year. Despite Hoover assigning over 200 agents to investigate the break-in, the group got away scot-free. When the statute of limitations for their crime ran out, they could no longer be prosecuted. Even then, they stayed hidden.

Now their story has been told, in the new book The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret F.B.I. by former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger. I have not read the book yet, but I assume it reveals why these people never came forward to face the music back then.

But what is clear is that the initial release of stolen documents by this group was what led to COINTELPRO becoming public knowledge, and what led to the reforms from the Church Committee -- neither of which might have happened without the initial leak. This small group of burglars caused a massive shift in federal policy on spying on American citizens. I consider what they did to be a public service to the American people, in fact. The public still likely doesn't have the full story on all the COINTELPRO abuses, but what was made public was done so as a direct result of a crime which was never prosecuted. The people responsible for the crime waited over 40 years to come forward, in fact. I don't blame them for that at all.

Edward Snowden may have just such a long wait in front of him, as well. Unlike the Citizens Commission to Investigate the F.B.I., Snowden publicly admitted he was the leaker from the very beginning. Even though he has not been convicted of any crime, his passport was immediately revoked, turning him into a "man without a country" until Russia granted him status. He's already paying a price for his actions, in other words.

But every time I hear someone on television suggest that Snowden should take the path that Daniel Ellsberg took, I wish someone would bring up COINTELPRO and the Citizens Commission to Investigate the F.B.I. -- because it's a much closer parallel to draw. I would even encourage the news media to allow Betty Medsger to make this case, since she's just written a new book on the incident. And in all the discussions over what the N.S.A. should and should not legally be allowed to do which will happen surrounding Obama's announcement later this week, it seems like a historical reminder of the last time America really engaged in this conversation would be appropriate. Any such conversation should include an in-depth look at what the Church Committee concluded, COINTELPRO, and the burglary of a federal office long ago in the Philadelphia suburbs.


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