WASHINGTON >> Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks of secret documents set off a national and global debate about government spying, is joining the board of a nonprofit organization co-founded by Daniel Ellsberg, the well-known leaker of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
The announcement by the group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, is the latest contribution to a public relations tug of war between Snowden’s critics, who portray him as a criminal and a traitor, and his supporters, who say he is a whistle-blower and source for the news media in the tradition of Ellsberg.
The foundation’s board already includes two of the journalists Snowden gave NSA documents to, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. But the organization — which consulted with lawyers about whether adding Snowden to its board could jeopardize its nonprofit tax status — is trying to emphasize parallels between Snowden and Ellsberg.
In 1971, the Nixon administration charged Ellsberg with violating the Espionage Act because he gave the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers. A court eventually threw out the case for government misconduct. Snowden has been charged under that same law.
"He is no more of a traitor than I am, and I am not a traitor," Ellsberg said in an interview. He added that he was proud that Snowden would serve alongside him on the group’s board, calling Snowden a hero who "has done more for our Constitution in terms of the Fourth and First Amendment" than anyone else Ellsberg knows.
The announcement comes days after the top Republican and Democratic lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee sought to paint a far more sinister portrait of Snowden, saying he had aligned himself with America’s enemies and jeopardized national security. They cited a classified defense intelligence report they said concluded that most of the documents he took concerned military activities rather than civil liberties.
"Make no mistake, Snowden is no patriot and there is no way to excuse the irreparable harm he caused to America and her allies, and continues to cause," said the chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. He added that Snowden’s "real acts of betrayal" were "likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field."
Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer advising Snowden, called such criticism "exaggerated national security fears" that amounted to "an attack on the journalists who have published the stories based on the documents." He added: "The government said much more dire things about what would happen if The New York Times published the Pentagon Papers. None of them turned out to be true."
In a statement provided by the foundation, Snowden said he was honored to serve the cause of a free press "alongside extraordinary Americans like Daniel Ellsberg."
Because Snowden is living in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum, he will participate in board meetings by a remote link, according to the group’s director, Trevor Timm.
Timm said that, before offering Snowden a position, the group had consulted with lawyers about whether doing so could create legal problems. The Internal Revenue Service recently granted the group nonprofit status under a section of the tax code that allows donors to deduct contributions from their taxable income, he said.
The lawyers, he said, concluded that Snowden’s participation as a board member — an unpaid position — should not jeopardize that status because the IRS has not penalized other groups with board members under indictment. Rather, such tax status is generally put at risk when groups stray from their mission.
Timm said that the foundation’s mission was to encourage "news organizations to publish government secrets in the public interest and for brave whistle-blowers to come forward, even though it is personally very risky." He added: "Snowden embodies exactly what we started this organization for, so I think we’re pretty safe."
The foundation was started 14 months ago for the initial purpose of enabling donations to WikiLeaks after firms like PayPal, MasterCard and Visa began refusing to process contributions. It rapidly expanded into other activities, including raising funds for other organizations and hiring a stenographer to produce daily transcripts of the court-martial trial of Chelsea Manning, then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks’ main source.
It raised about $650,000 last year, Timm said, of which about $500,000 went to various other organizations, including about $200,000 to WikiLeaks.
The group is increasingly focused on helping journalists protect the security of their communications, including by disseminating and managing a free software system to enable would-be sources to send leaked files to journalists in a way that it says can evade surveillance.
"Journalism isn’t possible unless reporters and their sources can safely communicate, and where laws can’t protect that, technology can," Snowden said in his statement. "This is a hard problem, but not an unsolvable one, and I look forward to using my experience to help find a solution."