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Posted by on Jan 24, 2014 in Blog | 7 comments

What History Teaches Us About Edward Snowden




We must ask ourselves, which is the right side of history?  ….That’s something worth remembering as this controversial case continues to be debated and his fate awaits the judgement of others.


I’ve been following the Edward Snowden controversy with considerable interest the past several months.  Until very recently however, I hadn’t come to any conclusions as to what this all means, nor even formed much of an opinion on the matter — particularly on how Snowden should be judged.

He’s a complex figure and this is a complicated matter, to be sure.

This confession might surprise readers, because I normally have an opinion about everything, especially when it comes to politics, national security, and foreign policy — all of which are strongly tied to the Snowden case.  I’d like to deem this neutrality as evidence of an open mind.  That’s to say, I don’t rush to every Pavlovian whistle when the Left commands us to march in unison.

When it comes to Snowden, both sides make convincing arguments.  On one hand, we don’t want government agencies having access to all the details of our private lives, which leads to the very real possibility of misusing that information against us.  That sort of makes Snowden a hero for trying to put a stop to abuses of authority.  On the other hand, we must grant those entrusted with the nation’s security the necessary tools to be able to do their jobs and protect us.  By that standard, Snowden is clearly a traitor.  In one form or another, this has been an ongoing tug-of-war since the formation of the republic.

I’ll pass on the two fundamental criterion normally used in the judgement of a crime, which are legal and ethical.  Rather, my focus will be on the historical.  Indeed, that’s how we should measure right versus wrong on questions of relating to the Snowden matter.  That’s how we classify heroes and villains.  We must ask ourselves, which is the right side of history?

The decisive period of history which applies to today’s debate happened 40 years ago.  We had legal and ethical standards back then, too.  Government officials cited the essential need to protect classified information.  However, others argued the people have the right to know what their government is doing at all times based on the articles of the Constitution.  So in the end, which side did history side with?

Let’s take a closer look.

Mark Felt might be a long forgotten name, except for one remarkable detail.  He was the real “Deep Throat” during the Watergate crisis.  To give some perspective to what Felt did during the early 1970’s, in many ways he was the Edward Snowden of his day.

Like Snowden, Felt enjoyed a privileged position within the federal government (he was actually Associate Director for the FBI) with access to confidential information.  Like Snowden, he saw the wrongs within the system and tried to correct them.  Like Snowden, Felt took great risks.  However, unlike Snowden, Felt operated clandestinely.  We never even knew he was “Deep Throat” until nearly 30 years later when the truth finally came out.

Here’s what Mark Felt actually looked like:




Today, no one considers Mark Felt a traitor, not even what remains of Nixon’s loyalists.

Did he commit a serious breech of contract?  Yes, he did.  As a government official entrusted with keeping and protecting the secrets within his department, he violated various oaths of non-disclosure, and arguably also broke the law.

But no one now thinks of Felt (now deceased) as a criminal, or a traitor.  To the contrary, he’s more of a hero figure, especially to those who favor transparency and defend important tools like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  To those who view the media’s role as being the eyes and ears of a living democracy, whistle blowers like Felt often provide key pieces of a much larger hidden puzzle.  History came to judge Felt and his actions favorably.  Rightly so.

Felt wasn’t alone in his indignation.  The other major figure from the Watergate era who bears mentioning is Daniel Ellsberg.  He’s shown below:




Ellsberg’s hotly-contested actions triggered the Watergate scandal, and changed history forever.  As an employee of the Rand Corporation (which consulted with the Department of Defense) and an increasingly staunch opponent of the Vietnam War, Ellsberg made a bold decision to release classified files to The New York Times which pertained to the military’s actions.

It bears mentioning that Ellsberg’s trove of material seems downright frivolous when contrasted with the far more explosive (and more extensive) contents of Snowden’s broader revelations which indicate the domestic surveillance of U.S. citizens by the government.  Essentially, Ellsberg was releasing a bunch of old stuff that happened years before, while Snowden’s disclosures dealt with actions and policies still going on to this day.

What would become known as “The Pentagon Papers” were actually a series of classified documents several years old which addressed America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam, almost a decade earlier.  Nothing in Ellsberg’s cache had anything to do with active military strategies or the (then) current conduct of the war.  Ellsberg’s disclosure didn’t cost any lives or put American military strategy at risk in any way.

Nonetheless, Ellsberg’s actions mandated a swift and decisive retribution.  The Nixon Administration went ballistic over the matter and took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to block publication of the secret documents, hoping to cease disclosure of so-called sensitive information.  For his role in the affair, Ellsberg was charged with serious crimes relating to espionage, which carried a possible life sentence in prison.  Although he was later found “not guilty,” due largely to federal prosecutors bungling the case, Ellsberg suffered long after his initial action.  Only recently has Ellsberg begun to be properly recognized with a number of awards bestowed by the press and other organizations which champion civil liberties.  In other words, although it took a while, history eventually came to judge Ellsberg and his actions favorably.

So, how are we likely to judge Snowden years from now?

One presumes that if history is any indication, he will be judged as a hero.  That’s something worth remembering as this controversial case continues to be debated and his fate awaits the decision of others.




  1. One cannot use the typical left/right dichotomy as guidance to make the decision of whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor. I have heard (good) arguments from both liberals and conservatives that take both positions. My knee-jerk reaction is that he is a hero and should be treated as such. But I can see the other argument and some days I can be persuaded that it is the right position.

    Related to your blog entry, I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out that the (very very conservative) Chicago Tribune was one of the first two papers to publish them in their entirety. I was attending a meeting in Chicago at the time and when I saw that I told my colleagues that Nixon was toast.

  2. “Today, no one considers Mark Felt a traitor, not even what remains of Nixon’s loyalists.”

    Check out what Pat Buchanan and Chuck Colson have said about Felt. Buchanan called him a “traitor”. Colson said he improperly broke the trust of the President. So, there are still some people out there that think of Felt as the bad guy and Nixon as the good guy.

    My feeling is this: Snowdon clearly broke the law. Real civil disobedience is being willing to go to jail for one’s convictions, look at Thoreau, Gandhi, and Dr. King. So, if you want to impress me with your altruism, demonstrate your willingness to face the music for what you’ve done. On the other hand, I agree with Snowden that he seems unlikely to get a fair trial. I think he should go to jail, but at the same time, I think the world is a better place for him disclosing what he has so far. Personally, I’m glad to know what he’s released, and while I *do* think he has broken the law, I wouldn’t classify what he has done as treason, based on what I know. I don’t think his *intent* was to provide aid and comfort to the enemy. It’s possible I’m wrong, but it seems hard to prove.

    This Sunday I saw Rep. Mark Rogers (R-Mich) basically accuse Snowden of having a priori help from the Russians. I’m waiting for some evidence of this. If someone knows of some, I’d be very interested in hearing what that is. Of course, when “national security” is involved, that gives certain folks an excuse to not provide actual evidence.

    Am I going to call him a hero? No. But, based on what I’ve read and heard so far, my working theory is that he’s done more good than harm. Of course, it’s possible that this isn’t true. It’s hard to imagine, though, that it could both be very harmful and we’ll be allowed to learn why.

    • Buchanan and Colson worked for Nixon and were blindly obedient. In Colson’s case, willing to break the law and go to prison. Their opinion on Mark Felt can hardly be viewed as anything but sour grapes.

      • I didn’t say that I agreed or that they were even sane. Nolan said that even Nixon loyalists don’t view Felt as a traitor any more. I’m pointing out that in the last decade Buchanan has used that exact word to describe him, so the statement isn’t true. That’s all.

        • NOLAN REPLIES: I concede the Buchanan and Colson quotes to be evidence that some Nixon loyalists think of Felt as a traitor. I wasn’t aware of their comments, and therefore amend the article to reflect these facts.

          — ND

  3. “…because I normally have an opinion about everything…”
    I think we share the same motto:
    “Often wrong, never in doubt”!

  4. It took me an extra day to finally remember this, but L. Patrick Gray (head of the FBI while Felt was “Deep Throat”)was another one who thought of Mark Felt as a traitor. Even though Mr. Gray died a few years ago, the haunting aspect of it is immediately after Felt was exposed as “Deep Throat” Mr. Gray had a televised interview explaining how shocked and dismayed he was at Felt’s betrayal. He died a week later.
    I have a strong suspicion L. Patrick Gray’s appointment by Nixon as head of the FBI to replace J. Edgar Hoover really ticked Mark Felt off something awful and it was a large contributor towards Felt becoming “Deep Throat”. In Mark Felt’s mind he was supposed to receive that promotion since he was the #2 FBI guy and he had been on J. Edgar Hoover’s ‘Goon Squad’ for a long time. Pursuant to Nixon’s wishes, Gray was an outsider who pranced right on in against the natural order of things…

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