Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, promoting her new book on her four years in the State Department, was on NPR’s “Fresh Air” for a wide-ranging interview. She was asked about former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, and again Clinton refused to admit that Snowden had any positive impact in the United States.

Host Terry Gross asked, “Do you think it was at all good on some level that the leaks started a conversation on whether it’s legal and appropriate for the NSA to be collecting metadata on Americans’ phone calls and collecting data from internet companies like Google and Facebook about Americans?”

Gross quoted Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, who said at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, “Mr Snowden has been sort of an imperfect messenger from my point of view for what we need to be talking about here. The Snowden case has raised all of these questions about whether we can use technology to protect the nati’l security without destroying the liberty, which includes the right to privacy, of innocent bystanders. We cannot change the character of our country or compromise the future of our people by creating a national security state, which takes away the liberty and the privacy we were supposed to advance.”

Clinton responded, “Well, I usually agree with my husband but let me say on this point that there were many ways to start this conversation and, in fact, the conversation was starting.”

“Members of Congress, a few notable examples like Senator Wyden and Senator Udall and others, were beginning to raise issues that it was time for us to take a hard look at all of the laws that had been passed and how they were implemented since 9/11,” she argued. “The president was addressing this. In fact, he had given a speech that basically made that point shortly before these disclosures were made. And, of course, I think it’s imperative that in our political system, in our society at large we have these debates so I welcome the conversation. But I think that he was not only an imperfect messenger but he was a messenger who could have chosen other ways to raise the very same specific issues about the impact on Americans.”

She later suggested these “other ways” could have involved “reaching out to some of the senators or other members of Congress or journalists in order to convey his questions about the implementation of the laws surrounding the collection of information concerning Americans’ calls and emails. I think everyone would have applauded that because it would have added to the debate that was already started.”

Clinton also argued, “The pieces about the metadata collection, other impacts on Americans, is a small sliver of what was stolen. Most of what was stolen concerned the surveillance that the United States takes totally legally against other nations. Now, we also have to make sure that it doesn’t go too far, like I personally deplore the tapping of Angela Merkel’s cell phone. That was unnecessary. But collecting information about what’s going on around the world is essential to our security.”

She condemned Snowden for leaving “first to China, then to Russia” and “taking with him a huge amount of information about how we track the Chinese military’s investments and testing of military equipment, how we monitor the communications between al Qaeda operatives.”

When Gross asked a followup question to see if she really knew what he took, Clinton replied, “There’s a lot of public writing about what’s in the massive amount of information that was taken. You can read the coverage by people like Walter Pincus or Ben Wittes or others who are quite knowledgeable about the information that might have been sent. I’m only talking about what’s been publicly discussed in news coverage by insiders, people who cover the intelligence community and people who have a good idea about the processees.”


Clinton is someone who media organizations are more than willing to give a platform to air her views and a good number of Americans consider her credible. As such, and especially since she is going to be making these arguments and points as she tours the world with her book, Hard Choices, it is important to challenge and deconstruct what she says.

First, a recap of what Clinton said previously at the University of Connecticut in April: (1) Obama gave a speech where he tried to ignite the debate Snowden wanted to start; (2) America has “all these protections for whistleblowers” so he could have been part of the debate; (3) Snowden could have been part of the debate here in America, but he went to China and Russia; (4) the United States, “compared to a number of our competitors,” is the only country with the kind of “safeguards” and “checks and balances” on intelligence gathering; and (5) Snowden cannot champion privacy and liberty as a refugee in Russia.

Clinton in the “Fresh Air” interview says Snowden should have contacted “senators or other members of Congress or journalists” to talk about his concerns about the laws. This does not appear to include providing documents, but, perhaps, it does. In any case, she completely fails to recognize that he was an intelligence agency contractor and lacked whistleblower protections.

Tom Devine, the legal director for the Government Accountability Project, which represents national security or intelligence agency whistleblowers in their daily work, declared on the one-year anniversary of Snowden’s disclosures, “Intelligence contractor whistleblowers’ only chance to defend themselves is in a hearing controlled by the same institutions retaliating against them. That was not always the case. Just six months before Snowden’s disclosures began, the House Intelligence Committee removed existing protections for certain IC contractors.”

Clinton does not even begin to fathom the possibility of retaliation for talking to members of Congress. She does not recognize that he would have received no “independent due process hearing or day in court” and it would have been very easy for the NSA to push him out of his job or fire him and ensure he never worked another position in government in which a security clearance was required.

She also is extremely deluded if she honestly thinks Snowden could have talked to the press. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales led a “massive manhunt,” as PBS FRONTLINE highlighted, into any employees in any US government agency who may have revealed to the New York Times evidence of warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

The FBI raided the homes of William Binney, Ed Loomis, Diane Roark and Kirk Wiebe. Binney, Loomis and Wiebe were career employees who worked for NSA. Roark was a House Intelligence Committee staffer. They had been working internally to challenge unethical, unconstitutional and illegal surveillance, and, when the New York Times story finally ran in 2005, they were suspected of leaking to the press and became targets. Neither of them were sources for the Times story.

Subsequently, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake had his home raided. He was then charged with violating the Espionage Act and prosecuted. He had exchanged emails with a Baltimore Sun reporter, Siobhan Gorman. No documents were transmitted to Gorman for publication. He simply shared details about what he knew in relation to waste, fraud and abuse stemming from a private contract.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has signed off on a directive broadly prohibiting “unauthorized” contact with the media. Intelligence agency employees can be fired for discussing non-classified policy matters, such as whether it is good policy for the NSA to engage in domestic surveillance of Americans.

Clinton is either ignorant or deliberately refusing to acknowledge any of this so she can make her arguments against Snowden.

She mentioned Senators Wyden and Udall. Wyden said in June, “The disclosures of the last week have made clear to the American people that the law is being interpreted in a way that damages their civil liberties and that the system has been set up to keep Americans unaware of the intrusion.”

Both were now in a better position to press for reform, as they had been floundering because they believed they could not publicly speak out about these programs. From June:

Udall and Wyden have been at the forefront of questioning the recently disclosed widespread collection of Americans’ calls. Udall and Wyden called on Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, to clarify his remarks this week that the surveillance programs disclosed through leaks and declassification over the past week have helped avert “dozens of terrorist attacks” in recent years. They also recently questioned assertions that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records “has actually provided any uniquely valuable intelligence” beyond what is available through other, less intrusive surveillance programs.

The disclosures made it possible for the two senators to eventually share that they had been aware of a “bulk email records collection program” under the PATRIOT Act. They had concerns about the program’s “impact on Americans’ civil liberties and privacy rights” but could not disclose details to the public. They “spent a significant portion of 2011 pressing intelligence officials to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They were unable to do so, and the program was shut down that year.”

Contrary to Clinton’s comments, Udall or Wyden have not been upset that Snowden came along and made unauthorized disclosures. They may not celebrate him by name, however, they understand the climate he created with his disclosures has made it easier to push for new privacy protections for Americans. (Also, to the issue of whistleblower protections, Wyden himself has said “whistleblower laws are deeply flawed and it doesn’t make much sense to speak up if you have to take your complaint to the people you’re complaining about.”)

It’s unclear what Clinton is specifically referring to when she talks about Snowden revealing how al Qaeda operatives communicate, but they use the same systems or networks of communication that Americans and people around the world use. They use the same privacy tools, if they are savvy enough, because they know the US government wants to target and kill them. Snowden disclosed nothing specific that they could not have already known. He just showed, as he put it in his NBC interview, the “dirtiness” of the NSA’s targeting, the “lack of respect” for the privacy of not just Americans but people in countries all over the world.

Clinton says, “Most of what was stolen concerned the surveillance that the United States takes totally legally against other nations,” but then adds, “Now, we also have to make sure that it doesn’t go too far, like I personally deplore the tapping of Angela Merkel’s cell phone.”

Who is going to stop it from going “too far”? Clinton was Secretary of State and did not do anything to stop it, either because she did not know about the spying or because she looked the other way and allowed it to continue. But how does anyone stop it if the NSA is able to keep it secret from not just the public but members of Congress, who are tasked with oversight? If Congress doesn’t ask about it (she was a senator), how does it not “go too far”?

She mentions Pincus and Wittes. Pincus’ columns appear to be a recurring regurgitation of office conversations at the NSA, nicely blending propaganda with a dabble of authoritarianism here and there. Wittes is former NSA director Gen. Keith Alexander’s favorite writer. He apparently reads him every day. And Wittes’ outfit, Lawfare, actually did al Qaeda a favor and conducted a deep dive into the documents disclosed by Snowden, putting together an easy to read list of targets that America’s enemies could strike in a manner.

The creation is ideologically inconsistent with his views and Wittes would have condemned journalists critical of the NSA for publishing this “catalog” had they produced it. It is also what the US military might have called “aiding the enemy” during Chelsea Manning’s prosecution. (See for yourself.)

Finally, not even the NSA knows what exactly Snowden took. That doesn’t affect Clinton’s comments at all.

Clapper recently spoke to “insider” journalist David Ignatius of the Washington Post and adjusted his estimate of how much information Snowden took. They’ve said he left with 1.7 million documents. Now it is 1.5 million. That is what he could apparently access. It is not what he took with him. Intelligence agency leaders don’t know because they did not want it to be possible to audit their system because then they would have been subject to oversight.

There was no debate by the Obama administration, and, for the most part, there is no debate now. The administration continues to exclude national security from its stated commitment to being Most Transparent Administration Ever™. It makes a mockery of open government pledges by fighting lawsuits for information on the government’s legal interpretation of policies related to surveillance.

If the administration is so open to debate, why is it coercing local police departments into violating public records laws in states or seizes copies of documents to ensure that Americans do not learn about new technologies being used for sweeping up the cell phone data of neighborhoods?

The answer is that The Obama administration does not welcome this debate. It never has, and it never will. And it’s thrown its support behind an extremely watered-down and largely useless reform bill, the USA FREEDOM Act, with the hope of ending conversation about government surveillance as soon as possible.

Creative Commons-Licensed Photo by Mike Mozart of JeepersMedia