The University of Connecticut hosted a keynote speaking event with former United States senator and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on April 23. She was asked a question about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and proceeded to express puzzlement and mock him for disclosing information on top secret surveillance programs.
Much of what Clinton said deserves a rebuttal, particularly if this is going to be the talking points that Democratic Party politicians repeat throughout the next fear years. So, I have decided to go line by line through her remarks.
The moderator said to Clinton, “I’m going to ask about the emergence of Edward Snowden and whether you think his emergence had any positive effects on either American security policy or discourse about security.”
She began her answer:
I look at it from a slightly different perspective, obviously, because when [Snowden] became a public figure the president had actually given a speech and many of us were beginning the process of trying to figure out more than ten years after 9/11 what we needed to do to get our liberty/security balance right. Because after 9/11, laws were passed. People were desperate to avoid another attack. I saw enough intelligence as a senator from New York then certainly as secretary, that this is a constant. There are people right this minute trying to figure out how to do harm to Americans and to other innocent people. So it was a debate that needs to happen so that we make sure that we’re not infringing on Americans’ privacy, which is a value cherished, personal belief that we have. But we also have to figure out how we get the right amount of security… [emphasis added]
This is similar to what President Barack Obama claimed in his speech at the Justice Department in January, when he announced how his administration would be responding to the information disclosed.
Obama declared, “After an extended review of our use of drones in the fight against terrorist networks, I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open ended war-footing that we have maintained since 9/11. For these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty. What I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.”
Both Obama and now Clinton want the public to overlook the administration’s history of support for spying, as presented by The New York Times, prior to the disclosures. Obama aides anonymously told the Times that the president had been “surprised to learn after the leaks…just how far the surveillance had gone.” The administration fought groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in the courts as they tried to convince judges to release documents that would at minimum confirm the secret legal interpretations of surveillance authorities under the law. So, it is fraudulent for Obama, Clinton or any other politician to claim to Americans that the White House was about to bring transparency and promote debate on government surveillance.
…When he emerged and when he absconded with all that material, I was puzzled, because we have all these protections for whistleblowers. I mean, if he were concerned and wanted to be part of the American debate, he could have been…
The presidential directive that Obama issued in October 2012 for “protecting whistleblowers with access to classified information” does not explicitly offer protection for contractors like Snowden. It continued the practice in government of not granting statutory protections to intelligence agency employees who decide to blow the whistle on waste, abuse, fraud and illegality.
Snowden could have provided information to the NSA’s inspector general, but that person, George Ellard, who Snowden was supposed to trust, said publicly he would have tried to show Snowden that he was wrong to be concerned.
NSA whistleblowers William Binney, Thomas Drake, Ed Loomis and Kirk Wiebe went to Democratic senators, Ron Wyden and Mark Udall. They listened to information about programs similar to the PRISM program that Snowden revealed and never acted upon any of the information shared.
Moreover, had Snowden gone to Congress, he would have been taking the risk that the US intelligence community would place him under investigation for leaking. His name may have been provided to the Justice Department for criminal investigation just like what happened to Drake, who was prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
…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…
As Snowden showed, the “cyber-relationships” are “very difficult,” meaning the NSA is engaged in hacking operations similar to the kind of Chinese operations US officials regularly condemn publicly. It targeted the corporate secrets of the Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, because it felt it was necessary to help American and Western network infrastructure businesses maintain their dominance. It had nothing to do with “national security,” as explained by US leaders, and everything to do with maintaining America’s economic power by engaging in economic espionage.
…And I don’t understand why he couldn’t have been part of the debate here at home. He could have quit. He could have taken whistleblower protection. He could have said you know there’s some things going on that I am concerned about and I want to talk about it…
No intelligence employee can “take” whistleblower protection. Talk like that demonstrates how ignorant Clinton is about the cobweb of inadequate and oft-times undermined protections available to whistleblowers. He could not have quit and started to talk about what he saw in the NSA. That would have immediately invited the attention of Director of Intelligence James Clapper, who would have brought the power of government down upon him to silence him. Or, officials would have immediately tried to discredit what he was saying by claiming he was just a lower-level government employee and did not really understand the way the system works.
Snowden had to have proof—actual documents—in order to participate in any debate. And, if he had taken documents with him, even if he “took” whistleblower protection, he would likely be prosecuted for violating the secrecy agreement he signed and put on trial where he would not have been able to defend his motive for disclosing the information.
And what “debate here at home”? There was no debate except among Obama’s close circle of advisers. And Obama was not going to invite Snowden to the White House to meet. He won’t even meet with Binney, Drake, Loomis and Wiebe, who each had much longer careers in intelligence. Why would he think he had to give Snowden any of his time?
…But at the State Department we were attacked every hour, more than once an hour, by incoming efforts to penetrate everything we had. And that was true across the US government. And we knew it was going on. When I would go to China or I would go to Russia, we would leave all my electronic equipment on the plane with the batteries out, because this is a new frontier and they’re trying to find out not just about what we do in our government, they’re trying to find out about what a lot of companies do and they were going after the personal emails of people who worked in the State Department. So, it’s not like the only government in the world that is doing anything is the United States, but the United States, compared to a number of our competitors, is the only government in the world is the only government in the world with any kind of safeguards, any kind of checks and balances… [emphasis added]
Actually, there are largely no constraints or “safeguards” on US intelligence agencies when it comes to engaging in offensive cyber operations, such as the “exploitation” of networks or attacks on targets considered adversary. Barton Gellman and Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post reported, based off documents from Snowden, that US intelligence launched 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011. They are considered clandestine and the Obama administration will not publicly acknowledge what the government is doing.
Snowden has effectively encouraged the world to pause for a moment and consider a future where countries are all engaged in cyber warfare against one another because there are no laws to stop them. In fact, his disclosures recently forced Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to meet with military leaders in China to talk about norms for cyber warfare.
…They may in many respects need to be strengthened and people need to be reassured and they need to have their protections embodied in law. But I think turning over a lot of that material intentionally or unintentionally, because of the way it can be drained, gave all kinds of information not only to big countries but to networks and terrorist groups and the like…
This is the dominant secrecy argument from government officials: that information published on the Internet is available to terrorists and networks of adversaries and so anyone who is responsible for forcing transparency is “aiding the enemy.” That is how the US military chose to prosecute Chelsea Manning. It is wholly ignorant of the reality that these opponents know well that American superpower has them in its cross-hairs and will do whatever it takes to neutralize, defeat or kill them.
If terrorists are sophisticated enough to understand any of the information disclosed—and how to use it to protect themselves, then they probably understand how to protect their privacy and have been trying to conceal their actions through technology. So, Snowden’s impact is minimal. What US officials are complaining about is a problem that will remain constant as the government continues to pursue the “war on terrorism.”
…I have a hard time thinking that somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia under Putin’s authority, you know. [mockingly] And then he calls in to a Putin talk show and says, “President Putin, do you spy on people? President Putin says from one intelligence professional to another of course not. Oh thank you so much.” I don’t know. I have a tough time following that.
Snowden’s passport was revoked. That is why he became stuck in a Moscow airport. He did not deliberately plan to go to Putin and ask for help. And, also, while it ruins her joke, Snowden did not call in to a Putin talk show. He submitted a video question. They were never talking to each other during the event so they could not have been chummy like Clinton suggests. Plus, she neglects to mention how he immediately wrote a response to Putin’s answer in The Guardian less than twenty-four hours later.