The War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, from Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden

When it comes to Edward Snowden, the question has often been posed as: is he a patriot or a traitor? In The War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, from Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden (The New Press 1620970635), author Lloyd Gardner, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, has written a fascinating work showing that the question of leakers and whistleblowers is rarely so binary or simple.


The topic is so volatile that while in the days that followed Snowden’s revelation in 2013, many politicians called for his head. But just last month, former US Attorney General Eric Holder said Snowden performed a public service by triggering a debate over surveillance techniques.

The experienced writer that he is, Lloyd Gardner has written an engaging book that gives the reader an overview of the topic without the histrionics that usually go along with it.

Much of the book is centered on the Espionage Act of 1917, a US federal law passed just after the start of World War I. It was intended to stop interference with military operations or recruitment, prevent military insubordination, and to prevent the support of US enemies during wartime. In the century since it’s passing, it has rarely been used. But as Gardner explains in great detail, that all changed when Obama came to town.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise of creating a transparent administration. Yet the nearly 8 years he’s been in office has shown that he’s been one of the most secretive presidents ever. And in using the Espionage Act, Gardner writes how he’s been the most punitive President to leakers and whistleblowers. Obama also holds the distinction of using the act more times than any other president.

Perhaps the ultimate sacrilege is that not only has the Obama administration been hostile to whistleblowers, in initially not releasing the full Omar Mateen 911 call transcripts; it was actually calling more attention to the very enemies the country faces.

National security is something that needs to be taken very seriously. While leakers and whistleblowers can seriously undermine American interests and security, there’s indeed a time and place for such people. Gardner has written a fantastic book that balances that very fine line between national security and abuse of power, and the ensuing need for whistleblowers to come forward.

The author takes a fair and balanced approach to the topic. He’s rational enough to know that there are many national security secrets that forever (or almost) need to be kept confidential; yet takes the government to task where its war on leakers goes beyond the pale.

The book offers no easy answers in which the Snowden story plays a large part. While the NSA has long countered that they would have taken Snowden’s allegations seriously had he submitted them through proper channels; that notion has been shown to be absurd. Snowden’s leaks showed the NSA, CIA and other agencies trampled over the constitutional rights of American’s. To think that they would have stopped hundreds of programs (and tens of billions of dollars in active projects) due to the protests of a single Booz Allen consultant is both ludicrous and an assault on intellectual honesty.

Gardner writes of numerous cases where legitimate whistleblowers were hounded and prosecuted by the government. From union leader Eugene Debs during World War I, to current times regarding CIA analyst John Kiriakou who shared information about CIA waterboarding of Al Qaeda prisoners, New York Times author James Risen, to NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake.

The book notes that while the Espionage Act has specific places it’s meant to operate it, the government has repeatedly used it in a manner in which it was not intended. Rather than focus on those attempting to attack the US, the government made the legitimate leakers the enemy.

Part of the issue is that the government is often handcuffed by the First Amendment; the Espionage Act places the burden of evidence on the whistleblower, and not on the information they are sharing. The very writing of the Act was meant to give the government a tool to stifle the whistleblower, where the Constitution could not.

An interesting point the book makes is that while Obama campaigned against George W. Bush and his policies; in many instances, Obama had sped up many of the spying programs Bush initiated.

Gardner closes the book with the observation that there is a distinction between citizens, who have rights and privileges protected by the state, and subjects, who are under the complete control and authority of the state. There is a fine line between the two. What made America great is treating the public as citizens. But if that line is not preserved, we can quickly revert to the pre-1776 days as subjects of the government.

The debate will forever rage about how to balance national security and privacy against legitimate dissent. For those looking to truly understand the issue; The War on Leakers: National Security and American Democracy, from Eugene V. Debs to Edward Snowden, is a most important book every American should read.


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