John Oliver’s Monday night interview of Edward Snowden — which in 24 hours has been viewed by 3 million people on YouTube alone — renewed all the standard attacks in Democratic circles accusing Snowden of being a traitor in cahoots with the Kremlin. What’s most striking about this — aside from the utter lack of evidence for any of it — is how identical it is to what Nixon officials said to smear the last generation’s greatest whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg (who is widely regarded by Democrats as a hero because his leak occurred with a Republican in the White House). As The New York Times reported in August 1973:
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As the Freedom of the Press Foundation recently noted: in December 1973, The NYT described the origins of Nixon’s “Plumbers Unit” and detailed how much of it was motivated by the innuendo spread by Henry Kissinger that Ellsberg was a covert Soviet operative:
I defy anyone to listen to any Democratic apparatchik insinuate that Snowden is a Russian agent and identify any differences with how Nixon apparatchiks smeared Ellsberg (or, for that matter, how today’s warnings from Obama officials about the grave harm coming from leaks differ from the warnings issued by Bush and Nixon officials). The script for smearing never changes — it stays constant over five decades and through the establishments of both parties — and it’s one of the reasons Ellsberg so closely identifies with Snowden and has become one of his most vocal defenders.
A reader this morning pointed me to one of the most illustrative examples of this dynamic: an April 1967 New York Times editorial harshly chastising Martin Luther King for his anti-war activism. That editorial was published three days after King’s speech on the Vietnam War at the Riverside Church in New York City, which, as I have written about many times, was one of the most powerful (and radical) indictments of American militarism delivered in the 20th century.
Among other things, King denounced the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” as well as the leading exponent of “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.” He said “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.” And he argued that no significant American problem can be cured as long as the country remains an aggressive and violent actor in the world: “if America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
The attack of the NYT editors on King for that speech is strikingly familiar, because it’s completely identical to how anti-war advocates in the U.S. are maligned today. It begins by lecturing King that his condemnation of U.S. militarism is far too simplistic: “the moral issues in Vietnam are less clear cut than he suggests.” It accuses him of “slandering” the U.S. by comparing it to evil regimes. And it warns him that anti-war activism could destroy the civil rights movement, because he is guilty of overstating American culpability and downplaying those of its enemies:
That has every element of the standard Washington attack on contemporary anti-war advocates: condemnation of U.S. militarism is “overly-simplistic,” ignores complexities and nuances, “slanders” our government leaders and military officials, and downplays or “whitewashes” the crimes of America’s enemies. It’s worth remembering that Washington smear merchants never change their script: they haul the same ones out regardless of the issue or who is doing the dissenting.
Photo of King’s anti-war speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. on April 30, 1967. (AP)