Ellsberg warns of “surveillance state”

BERKELEY, Calif. – Famous “Pentagon Papers” whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg recently told an audience of students and local residents that when it comes to government spying, the Fourth Amendment and privacy rights, the United States is not simply at a crossroads, but is on a freeway with no exits. In an age of high-tech computing everything can be recorded: Internet history, chat logs, phone records, credit card transactions, etc. This technology has helped advance U.S. surveillance beyond anything the world has ever seen.

“We don’t have a police state at this point,” Ellsberg said, “but we have a surveillance state.”

At his Sept. 24 talk, “Manning, Snowden, Syria and the U.S. Constitution,” Ellsberg warned that it wouldn’t take much to tip the U.S. over to a police state, unless Americans grapple with the assault on civil liberties and privacy.

“Will we or will we not do anything about it?” he asked.

Ellsberg is well known for his antiwar activism and releasing the “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. With the assistance of colleague Anthony Russo, Ellsberg copied 7,000 pages of a top-secret federal report that documented the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967.

Ellsberg defended the current crop of whistleblowers, including Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. Using federal laws based on the Espionage Act of 1917, the Obama administration is prosecuting leakers of classified information at a significantly increased rate than any preceding administration. 

However, Ellsberg said, these federal laws are supposed to target those that would aid a foreign enemy with classified U.S. military information that might be used to harm the U.S. Ellsberg claimed the information leaked by Manning, Snowden and himself could not be used by an enemy to attack the U.S., but would instead help inform people.

He said Snowden expressed concerns that the U.S. Congress was being lied to about the extent of the National Security Agency wiretapping programs. These programs bring into question U.S. citizens’ protection against unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Also, the prosecution of Snowden, Manning, and others who release this type of information to the press brings into question the protection of First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Ellsberg pointed out that massive spying by the executive branch and the accumulation of damaging information on individuals could potentially be used against another branch of government, like Congress, to influence votes. This would fundamentally upset the balance of our separation of powers in federal government, he said.

Ellsberg then pivoted to Syria and President Obama’s response to the use of chemical weapons on August 21.

Ellsberg noted that despite the push by the president’s advisors for the use of military force without congressional approval, Obama was simply following the U.S. Constitution, which only allows Congress to declare war.

Ellsberg advocated for more restrictions on the executive branch to unilaterally authorize military actions in the future.



Photo: Daniel Ellsberg speaks in support of Pvt. Chelsea Manning. (CC)



A.B. Wilkinson
A.B. Wilkinson

A.B. Wilkinson is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Dr. Wilkinson has teaching and research interests in colonial North America and early U.S. history, as well as African American history, Native American history, Ethnic Studies, and critical race theory in the Americas.