My probes for precedents to the Snowden NSA leaks inevitably yield references to Daniel Ellsberg's release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and while there are more than a few similarities (someone within the government sharing documents that challenged the official narrative), there are some significant differences that suggest the current controversy is more significant.
What's especially interesting about today's story -- which apparently will continue to dribble out over an extended period on a schedule set by the leakers -- is that those releasing it have managed to use an act of civil disobedience to shift the focus of the political debate. In the past such efforts, including dramatic acts like human blockades in the path of troop trains, massive marches on Washington or even self-immolation, the response has been to focus on the mindset of and possible legal consequences for those acting.
That was true in the Pentagon Papers case where the court battles about whether the Washington Post and New York Times could be precluded from publishing and whether Ellsberg would be punished, overwhelmed the efforts to reframe public perceptions of the Vietnam War. That's partly because the government misrepresentations unveiled happened in a prior administration.
Nixon was in the White House when the documents revealing how his predecessors had misled people, a charge he himself had made during the campaign from a different perspective. Saying the revelations were "no skin off my back" because he was not implicated in any way, he then added, "the way I saw it was that far more important than who the Pentagon Papers reflected on, as to how we got into Vietnam, was the office of the presidency of the United States..."
In essence, he was saying, let's focus on the leak process rather than the policy challenge. And he was reasonably successful at that.
The Obama administration finds that its efforts to copy this strategy -- by speaking of whether treason is involved and getting involved in extradition negotiations -- aren't working as well. They've been forced to deal with the policy questions as well.
There have been more than a few lessons learned by the leakers in the intervening years. One is not to dump all the data at once, which leads to a big splash that quickly disappears. Instead, they're creating a multi-chapter narrative and simply not giving reporters the option of selecting their own focal points within the documents, as happened with the Pentagon Papers and with the more recent Manning WikiLeaks.
In addition to controlling what the next story is and when it will be released, they also will decide where it will be released, leaving the government uncertain about how the next shoe will drop. That -- and the Pentagon Papers court rulings -- may explain why the Administration isn't going after the press on this one, but instead trying to enlist them in supporting the argument that national security has been compromised.
If the story abates, as it inevitably will in the next month as Congress turns to budget issues, they retain the power to reignite it by releasing another chapter of this tale. It appears that Snowden delegated this editorial process to a pair of journalists he had come to trust.
Those of us outside the process can't predict when it will end, but it isn't inconceivable that new revelations a year from now could impact congressional races.
As compelling as their stories are, it is important not to ignore the impact this effort has had on process. Any outsiders hoping to influence the political debate would be wise to study precisely has happened and build on this technique. In the end, Nixon may once again prove right, and the impact on the process may ultimately prove more important than today's debate about the policies we're slowing learning about.