Margaret Sullivan: ‘I Think That Snowden Did Something That Had to Happen’

Let's talk whistleblowers.

Over the weekend, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder kinda sorta surprised some people with his comments about government whistleblower Edward Snowden. “We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did,” he told David Axelrod during an interview on The Axe Files, “but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made.”

The comments were similar to another interview that aired this weekend, between Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and Alexander Heffner on his show, The Open Mind. “I think that Snowden did something that had to happen,” she said.

The interview was actually taped back in April, and Sullivan’s expansion on this idea was like a strange foreshadowing of Holder’s comments, which were in line with similar statements that had been made previously by President Obama, as Sullivan reminds us:

And even President Obama, who, you know, didn’t benefit from this in any way, said that he thought that the discussion–the public discussion that was forced by this–was very important. So Snowden, I think, has to be seen as a great source. I mean you can say what you want to about whether he went outside the bounds of legality, but he certainly served the public interest in my mind by bringing this behavior to the forefront.

Sullivan was serving as public editor at The New York Times when The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the Snowden leaks. She described how it felt for those at the Times to be left out:

[NYT editors] would have very much liked to have had that story, but they had to play catch up on it. And no news organization wants to be doing that. It was actually the Guardian and the Washington Post who led the way on that. And largely through–or at least at the beginning–through journalists like Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald. And then Barton Gellman at the Washington Post. And those two newspapers ended up sharing the public service Pulitzer Prize for those stories.

There was some precedent to explain why the Times hadn’t been chosen:

Some people said that that was because the Times had, in the past, held back on…national security stories or investigative stories that the government didn’t want published. And there was a famous case of that. A story by Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau about electronic eavesdropping that was held for 13 months while an election happened. And one heard that Snowden was well aware of that and didn’t want to take that chance with the Times. So that was pretty tough on the Times’ reputation.

But of course, in an earlier part of New York Times’ history, it had taken the plunge with Snowden defender and celebrated whisteblower Daniel Ellsberg, publishing portions of the Pentagon papers Ellsberg had leaked to the paper until a court injunction prevented the Times from publishing any more, leaving The Washington Post to grab the baton.