Stunning NSA Leaks: Is Daniel Ellsberg Back?

ABC News
Stunning NSA Leaks: Is Daniel Ellsberg Back?
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Stunning NSA Leaks: Is Daniel Ellsberg Back? (ABC News)

The headline-grabbing national security leaks in The Washington Post and The Guardian last week both were authored by board members of a little-known, six-month-old advocacy group that was formed to support groundbreaking reporting.

The organization, called the Freedom of the Press Foundation, has no offices and a shoestring budget, and according to the group's attorney, had no formal role in the drumbeat of published reports that have revealed the U.S. government's secret efforts to view the phone records and internet activity of millions of Americans and foreigners.

The foundation's board is led by one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history, Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 exposed the secret history of the run-up to war in Vietnam on the front page of The New York Times.

Two of the group's board members now appear to be involved in a story that's following a similar model.

Glenn Greenwald, the author of reports in The Guardian about the National Security Agency's collection of phone records and a follow-up scoop involving the leak of a secret document about U.S. cyber warfare efforts, is one of a handful of journalists who sit on the board alongside activists, Hollywood actors and other patrons. Laura Poitras, another board member, is a documentary filmmaker who shared a byline on The Washington Post report about a secret program to scour the Internet for clues about terrorist activities. She is reportedly in the midst of completing a film about the WikiLeaks scandal.

In the case of Greenwald's phone monitoring report, The Guardian published a Top Secret order by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was extraordinary in part because it was the first known leak in the super secret court's 35-year history, according to insiders.

Greenwald, appearing on ABC News "This Week" Sunday, compared the leaked information and the government's response to the Pentagon Papers and said to expect more reports on government programs based on leaked information.

"I am not going to confirm that there is only one [source] -- there could be one or more than one," Greenwald said on "This Week." "[S]ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers -- who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution."

Neither he nor Poitras responded to emailed questions asking if the reports were released in a coordinated fashion or if the foundation played any role in supporting their reporting.

Cindy Cohn, an attorney for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said she did not know if Greenwald and Poitras coordinated the timing of the publication of their articles, or if the leaked information came to each of them from the same source. But Cohn did not believe that the articles were part of an orchestrated campaign hatched by the foundation.

"I don't want to reveal the inner workings of the foundation, but I am not aware that they were involved," Cohn said.

More likely, Cohn said, the ties between the authors and the foundation may be due to the fact that they are part of a small circle of people who are passionate and active on national security, government secrecy, and the need to protect whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing.

"They all know each other," Cohn said.

Cohn is one of several employees of another organization that fits in that category – the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) – which also has ties to the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Several employees of EFF founded the press freedom organization in December, and the two groups share a board member. In addition to representing the foundation, Cohn is the attorney of record in a lawsuit seeking to stop warrantless wiretapping and hold the government and government officials behind the program accountable.

Cohn said the foundation has not yet received nonprofit status from the IRS, and so is operating under the sponsorship of the left-leaning nonprofit media group Mother Jones.

Among those who are also working for EFF is Trevor Timm, the press foundation's executive director.

"I basically have two jobs now," Timm told ABC News.

"We've been involved in the lawsuit against the NSA for their warrantless surveillance program for years now and we just launched the Freedom of the Press Foundation about six months ago given that there was this climate of a crackdown on whistleblowers, and journalism seemed to be under threat," Timm said. "It just happens to be that two of our board members happen to be central to this story now and we couldn't be prouder of them."

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