Democrats spar over NSA at presidential debate, with Sanders acknowledging Snowden had ‘played very important role’ in ‘educating the American public’
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparred over Edward Snowden during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate with both calling for him to face trial, but with the Vermont senator saying he thought the NSA whistleblower had “played a very important role in educating the American people”.
Clinton was unmoved by public approbation for Snowden, who exposed the depths of US and UK surveillance to media including the Guardian in 2013.
“He broke the laws of the United States,” she said. “He could have been a whistleblower, he could have gotten all the protections of a whistleblower. He chose not to do that. He stole very important information that has fallen into the wrong hands so I think he should not be brought home without facing the music.”
Snowden has said he did not believe he was granted adequate protection from reprisal under whistleblower laws. Laws protecting whistleblowers in intelligence agencies are written differently from laws protecting others who oppose their employers – including in the government – on grounds of conscience, and are generally considered comparatively weak.
Sanders – Clinton’s main challenger for the Democratic nomination – was more lenient. “I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American public,” the Vermont senator said. He, too, said that Snowden had broken the law and suggested that he ought to be tried. “I think there should be a penalty to that,” he said. “But I think that education should be taken into consideration before the sentencing.”
Jim Webb, the Virginia senator and former secretary of the navy, said the decision should be left to the courts, and Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, agreed with Clinton. Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor, was the only candidate to say he would bring Snowden back to the US as a hero; that answer drew a positive response online.
Clinton’s claim that the information Snowden made public “has fallen into the wrong hands” could be reference to a disputed Times of London story that the leak exposed undercover agents. It could also refer to Snowden’s own admission that inadequate redaction of classified images he supplied to the New York Times was “a fuck-up”.
Ewen MacAskill, the Pulitzer prize-winning Guardian journalist who worked on the Snowden story, has pointed out that no evidence has ever been put forward suggesting that the Snowden documents were hacked or that Snowden himself handed the material to any person or agency other than reputable news outlets.
When moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton whether she regretted voting for the Patriot Act, she gave a flat: “No.”
“I don’t,” she said. “I think that it was necessary to make sure that we were able after 9/11 to put in place the security that we needed.” Clinton did allow that the act’s notorious section 215, which allowed for essentially unlimited data collection, had been interpreted overbroadly.
The provisions of the Patriot Act, a law broadening the powers of American intelligence and law enforcement agencies passed just weeks after 9/11, have widely been criticized as too broad and being without accountability. Among them are the expansion of the secret Fisa court system and a framework for the standards for the collection of personal information from citizens who are not suspected or accused of any crime.
Sanders – who voted against the act multiple times, including against its original incarnation in the House of Representatives – said unequivocally that he would end bulk data collection by the NSA.
Clinton demurred. “It’s not easy to balance privacy and security but we have to keep them both in mind,” she said.