By JOSH GERSTEIN
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden should have stayed in the U.S. to voice his concerns about U.S. surveillance programs and has endangered U.S. secrets by fleeing to Russia, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an appearance at the University of Connecticut Wednesday.
“When he emerged and when he absconded with all that material, I was puzzled, because we have all these protections for whistleblowers,” Clinton said. “If he were concerned and wanted to be part of the American debate, he could have been. But it struck me as—I just have to be honest with you—as sort of odd that he would flee to China, because Hong Kong is controlled by China, and that he would then go to Russia, two countries with which we have very difficult cyber-relationships, to put it mildly.”
Clinton also mocked Snowden for taking part in a show on the Russian-government-controlled TV network in which he appeared from an undisclosed location to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin a question about surveillance. (Some in Snowden’s camp reportedly view the appearance as a mistake.)
“I have a hard time thinking someone who’s a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia under Putin’s authority,” the former secretary of state, senator and first lady said. “Then he calls into a Putin talk show and says, ‘President Putin, do you spy on people?’ President Putin says, ‘Well, from one intelligence professional to another, of course not,’ OK. Thank you so much,” she said in a sarcastic tone. ” I don’t know. I have a hard time following it.”
Clinton, who has said little about the controversy over NSA surveillance since it began to emerge last June, was vague about her views on what changes should be made to the telephone-call-tracking database and other practices Snowden revealed. Last September, she cancelled a planned speech on the appropriate balance between security and privacy. The address was never rescheduled.
“It was a debate that needs to happen so that we make sure that we’re not infringing on Americans’ privacy, which is a valued, cherished personal belief that we have, but we also had to figure out how to get the right amount of security,” Clinton said at UConn. She added, without elaborating, that it might be appropriate to increase privacy protections. “They may, in many respects, need to be strengthened and people need to be reassured.”
Snowden supporters and advisers say Clinton’s remarks were unrealistic and reflect several factual misunderstandings about his predicament. They say he could not have availed himself of whistleblower protections because he was not a government employee (he worked for contractor Booz Allen) and his claims would not have been viewed as exposing any impropriety because authorities in all three branches of government had blessed the NSA telephone program as legal. A federal judge not privy to the program before the leaks later ruled it unconstitutional, but that decision is on appeal.
“Was he supposed to call the Senate Intelligence Committee and say, ‘I’d like to report to you a program you approved in secret…’?” Snowden legal adviser Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an interview Friday. “Snowden is not a person who stumbled upon this ltitle secret pocket of misconduct….This wasn’t a situation where it’s a question of how to tell the boss and tell Congress—his bosses and Congress were the problem.”
Wizner also noted that Clinton never squarely said whether Snowden’s disclosures were a net positive or not.
“Does Hillary Clinton think that we are worse off as a result of the revelations that Snowden enabled? Are were worse off because the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others have published these stories?” Wizner asked. “I think its hard to make that argument.”
Another Snowden adviser reacted even more harshly. “As for her ignorance about the problem with the lack of ‘channels’ for national security whistleblowers, she’s either out of touch or lying,” said Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project.
Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg has said Snowden would have been arrested if he had stayed in the U.S. and likely would have been held in jail pending trial, unable to communicate with the media.
“I hope Snowden’s revelations will spark a movement to rescue our democracy, but he could not be part of that movement had he stayed here. There is zero chance that he would be allowed out on bail if he returned now and close to no chance that, had he not left the country, he would have been granted bail. Instead, he would be in a prison cell like Bradley Manning, incommunicado,” Ellsberg wrote in the Washington Post.
Snowden and his associates also say he took extraordinary measures to preserve the security of the material he took from the NSA. He has also said he did not bring any of the information to Russia. Journalist Glenn Greenwald has said he’s aware of no evidence that any of the files Snowden took have been made public or reached foreign governments—except for documents news organizations have reported on.
Wizner said Snowden knew how to clear electronic devices of information and prevent interception by foreign governments, because he used to show Clinton’s diplomats how to do just that when he worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “There’s no one more expert in the U.S. Government on that than him,” the lawyer said.
In her remarks Wednesday, Clinton signaled no departure from President Barack Obama’s approach to the surveillance controversy. In fact, in mentioning a speech Obama gave a few weeks before the first of Snowden’s revelation, she echoed a White House talking point that Obama had just begun to initiate a robust national debate on privacy/security issues when the former NSA contractor emerged with his headline-grabbing disclosures. In that May speech, which focused on issues like drones and Guantanamo, Obama devoted a single sentence to surveillance issues and made some passing references to privacy concerns.