Over the course of our history, many individuals have taken bold stands to hold our government accountable to the principles that we as a nation hold dear. They put themselves at great personal risk in order to highlight policies and practices that violated those principles or that ran counter to the law. They spoke truth to power and were willing to face the consequences.
Thus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the course of protesting systemic racial prejudice, wrote his timeless Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he both explained the moral bases for direct action and chastised his fellow clergymen for their failure to confront the immorality of legalized discrimination. King literally sat in his jail cell and composed that letter on the margins of scraps of newspaper, which were smuggled out by his lawyers.
Before and after his incarceration, time and again King risked his life, placing himself at the center of controversy and turmoil, always seeking peaceful resolutions to the incendiary issues of the time. Somehow he knew he would not survive the struggle but, he concluded, “… if a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
Thus, Daniel Ellsberg, a brilliant, Harvard-educated economist who also served in the U.S. Marine Corps, released to The New York Times and Washington Post highly sensitive classified documents to which he had gained access as a national security analyst. These documents, which became known as the Pentagon Papers, revealed the U.S. government’s acknowledgement that the Vietnam War was likely unwinnable, and that casualties were likely to be many times greater than the public had been led to believe.
Ellsberg openly admitted that he had released the documents and surrendered to federal authorities, saying, “I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.”
Even Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army soldier who released to WikiLeaks confidential documents, diplomatic cables and media that continue to cause tremors in government and intelligence circles around the world, acknowledged, “The decisions that I made to send documents and information to (WikiLeaks) were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”
Manning is now facing federal charges, including passing classified information to an unauthorized source, and aiding the enemy, for which he may receive a life sentence.
While it’s doubtful that Manning will ever take his place alongside King, or even Ellsberg (though Ellsberg has praised Manning for his actions) in the history books, at least he has been willing to face the music in acting as he felt compelled to do.
So it is particularly grotesque now to observe the spectacle that is Edward Snowden, the intelligence analyst who has leaked information that appears to reveal the extent to which agencies of the U.S. government have been gathering huge amounts of data on American citizens and foreign governments, among others. The full impact of Snowden’s disclosures is not yet clear, though Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “People may die as a consequence of what this man did.”
Snowden no doubt believes he has done the American people a great service. Unlike King, Ellsberg or Manning, however, Snowden chose to make his stand not in full view of the authorities whom he would confront, but from an undisclosed location in Hong Kong; then, when the Chinese government made it clear he was no longer welcome, he made his way to Moscow, where he was, at last report, in the Sheremetyevo airport transit lounge.
Now, assisted by the WikiLeaks Foundation, Snowden is casting about for a safe haven in which to reside while more documents are released. At last count, he has sought asylum in more than 22 countries. This is a guy who does not want to return to the United States.
History may yet judge Snowden to have been a hero. His actions may cause laws and procedures to change, such that additional safeguards are put into place to protect citizens from unreasonable invasions of privacy. Someday Snowden’s name may be uttered with some appreciation, if not reverence, for the actions he has taken.
But I doubt it.
No one is going to confuse Snowden’s furtive videos from Hong Kong with King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, nor, I suspect, will posterity offer much respect for an individual whose convictions are deep enough only to motivate him to avoid his own.
Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe. He is also chairman of the Maine District Export Council. His website is perrybnewman.com/.