Malcolm Gladwell Likes Leaks When They Bolster Government Power

New Yorker: Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower

Malcolm Gladwell (New Yorker, 12/19/16): “Ellsberg was an insider—and that fact puts him in stark contrast with the man who has come to be seen as his heir, Edward Snowden.”

Glenn Greenwald noted the class bias of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece (12/19/16) that compared Edward Snowden unfavorably to Daniel Ellsberg—in part because, as Gladwell wrote, Ellsberg went to better schools:

Snowden did not study under a Nobel Prize winner, or give career advice to the likes of Henry Kissinger. He was a community-college dropout, a member of the murky hacking counterculture.

But maybe more surprising than the class bias of the New Yorker‘s resident deep-thinker is his take on the role of anonymous leaks. In a properly functioning media system, Gladwell argues, the purpose of leaks is to fool people into accepting government indoctrination—and it would be a shame if that system were to break down.

Gladwell borrows (of course) this argument from Columbia law professor David Pozen (Harvard Law Review, 12/20/13), writing, “Pozen argues that governments look the other way when it comes to leaks because it is in their interest to do so.” Pozen makes a distinction between unauthorized “leaks” and “plants”—the latter being “a leak made with the full authorization of the White House.” (This is a distinction that FAIR has made for years—see Extra!, 5–6/90, 5–6/06.) The article cites as an example of a plant an anonymously sourced story about CIA drone strikes in Yemen:

Letting the facts slip out served a purpose for the Obama Administration. A plant like that, Pozen writes, “keeps the American people minimally informed of its pursuits [and] characterizes them in a manner designed to build support.”…

But if you want to reserve your right to plant an authorized leak, Pozen argues, you have to allow unauthorized leaks as well:

For a strategy of planting to work, it is critical that relevant audiences not immediately assume that every unattributed disclosure they encounter reflects a concerted White House effort to manipulate the information environment….

In a world where every stealthy disclosure is a plant, the journalist is a stooge [and] the administration’s motives are transparent…. But, when the origin of the disclosure is uncertain, all parties save face.

Note that for Gladwell here, for the government’s motives to be “transparent” is a bad thing: If readers spot the “effort to manipulate the information environment,” then the government attempt to “build support” through deception will fail. Likewise, being recognized as a journalistic “stooge” is a bad thing; an undetected stooge is not a problem.

Even unauthorized leaks bolster the executive branch, in this account, by helping “to justify to the public the extraordinary power it wields.” Writes Gladwell:

The White House allows leaks—even if those leaks hamper and embarrass it in the short run—because they help it maintain its power in the long run. In short, the relationship between the government and the press—between the source of leaks and the beneficiary of leaks—is symbiotic.

But this symbiosis depends on “a degree of discretion and judgment,” a recognition that “leaking…is a ritual that obliges its participants to play by certain rules”: Governments have to prosecute leakers, but not too much; journalists can’t publish too many leaks—and must pretend that authorized disclosures are really unauthorized: the press must “preserve the ambiguity of plants, in order to preserve its access to leaks.”

Daniel Ellsberg (cc photo: Christopher Michel/Wikimedia)

Daniel Ellsberg, whom Henry Kissinger called “the most dangerous man in America.” (cc photo: Christopher Michel/Wikimedia)

In Gladwell’s view, Daniel Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon Papers was an example of this kind of symbiotic relationship between the government and the press. After recounting how the disillusioned Pentagon official came to give the secret history of the Vietnam War to the New York Times, Gladwell summarizes:

A studious political-science Ph.D. wishes to instruct the upper echelon of American leadership in the benefits of reading several thousand pages of history, and, after his initial efforts prove unavailing, assigns a carefully curated set of course materials to the most august institution in American journalism. This isn’t the behavior of a dissident.

Funny, though—neither Nixon nor Ellsberg seemed to think the relationship was so symbiotic. Nixon rails against Ellsberg as a “radical” and part of a “conspiracy” against him in the Watergate tapes (6/15/71):

So he takes out papers and does it—now goddamn it [pounding desk], somebody’s got to go to jail on that. Somebody’s got to go to jail for it. That’s all there is to it.

In a conversation later the same day (6/15/71), Nixon condemns the Pentagon Papers leak in much the same terms that Gladwell sees Snowden:

It really involves the ability to conduct government. How the hell can a president or a secretary of Defense or anybody do anything?… And how can they make a contingency plan if it’s going to be taken out in a trunk and given to a goddamn newspaper?

Gladwell mentions the Nixon White House burglarizing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (as part of what Gladwell refers to as the “farcical denouement” of the Ellsberg case), but doesn’t note that Nixon had discussed “firebombing” the Brookings think tank in order to steal files related to the Pentagon Papers—not the kind of action typically associated with symbiosis.

For his part, Ellsberg expressed no interest in getting the “upper echelons of American leadership” to read the Pentagon Papers via his leak, but rather said he wanted to get them into the hands of the public. In an interview with Reason magazine headlined “Why I Did It!” (6/73), Ellsberg explained:

The only thing that I could personally hope to achieve by my own efforts was to make these documents available to the American public for them to read and to learn from…. What the Pentagon Papers told me when I read them was that the executive branch was determined not to learn lessons from its experience in Vietnam…. The history in the Pentagon Papers told me that if others were to learn a different lesson, it would have to be people outside the Executive Branch, and they would have to have the physical capability to read the papers.

Despite Ellsberg’s avowed interest in bringing the actual history of the Vietnam War to the people, Gladwell presents him as the quintessential leaker: “Leakers…are interested in using and exploiting secrecy: they believe that secrecy, by its preservation and strategic violation, serves an essential purpose.” Gladwell presents Snowden as engaged in an entirely different sort of activity:

Snowden didn’t leak, in the traditional sense. He flooded, and in that difference of degree is a difference in kind…. A much-needed national conversation about the NSA’s encroachment on civil liberties became sidetracked by debates about his own motivations.


Goofus exposes secrets because he thinks the public has a right to know them, not because he wants to spark a conversation among elites.

Gladwell imagines a character named “Daniel Snowberg,” essentially a Ellsbergian Gallant (“He has a doctorate in international relations”!) to Snowden’s Goofus. The imaginary Snowberg leaks only what he has to in order to get a narrow court ruling on privacy rights:

Daniel Snowberg, the insider, would have sparked a national debate that focused on the question of what access the NSA should have to the private data of ordinary American citizens…. Snowberg would have stood as someone who restored the legitimacy of the national-intelligence apparatus: who…embarrassed the executive branch in the short term in order to preserve the prerogatives of the executive branch in the long term.

If only Snowden had been an overeducated insider who valued the preservation of secrecy and wanted only to use and exploit secrets in order to preserve government power. Then we could have had a real debate about civil liberties!

Instead, having tried to expose the secrets of an abusive government to the public—just like Ellsberg did—he’ll have to wait 45 years for the inheritors of Malcolm Gladwell’s style of establishment journalism to fantasize that he was an insider all along.

Jim Naureckas is the editor of You can find him on Twitter at @JNaureckas.

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This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.