The first Democratic presidential candidate debate, that took place on Tuesday, was the scene for some interesting discussions about serious issues. Though Hillary Clinton’s e-mail fiasco should have been the most controversial talking point, the debate on this topic was brief thanks to Bernie Sanders’ decision to focus on core issues, rather than take the opportunity and attack his main contender. “Let me say something that may not be great politics,” he said. “But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” concluded the Vermont Senator. The other candidates had a few replies, but just as brief. Moderator Anderson Cooper didn’t insist anymore, and that was the end of it. The debate focused instead on more important matters, including opinions from each candidate regarding the Snowden scandal.
Supporters began petitioning the White House to pardon Snowden after he was formally charged in 2013 with espionage, theft, and conversion of government property. The former National Security Agency contractor expressed in an interview that he would love to come back to the US from Russia, where he obtained asylum right after the whole scandal broke out. Even though the petition received almost 168,000 signatures, the White House formally announced on July the 28th that it will not pardon Snowden. “If he felt his actions were consistent with civil disobedience, then he should do what those who have taken issue with their own government do: Challenge it, speak out, engage in a constructive act of protest, and — importantly — accept the consequences of his actions. He should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers — not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime. Right now, he’s running away from the consequences of his actions,” said Lisa Monaco, the President’s Advisor on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
The presidential debates have become opportunities to see what other candidates would do in this situation and how would the resolve the whole matter. The Democratic candidates feel strongly about making Snowden pay for his actions. Four out of five candidates agreed at the debate that Edward Snowden should face the courts.
Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee was the only one who saw Snowden more as a hero than a traitor.
Moderator Anderson Cooper asked: “Governor Chafee: Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?” Chafee said that he would bring him home, and not in a jail cell. “The American government was acting illegally,” said Chafee. “That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.”
We could say that another somewhat Snowden-favorable reply, was Bernie Sanders’ response to the same question: “I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined,” he said. “He did—he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration.” Sanders even said that he would shut down the NSA surveillance as it exists today, so we can assume that his stance is somewhere in between helping Snowden and bringing him to court.
The rest of the candidates agreed that they would all want Snowden to face justice. Hillary Clinton was perhaps the more determined of the three: “He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistle-blower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistle-blower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.” O’Malley and Webb rallied behind the same argument, but it might not be the right one.
Democratic Presidential Debate transcript:
COOPER: Governor Chafee, Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?
CHAFEE: No, I would bring him home. The courts have ruled that what he did—what he did was say the American…
COOPER: Bring him home, no jail time?
CHAFEE: … the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.
COOPER: Secretary Clinton, hero or traitor?
CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.
COOPER: Should he do jail time?
CLINTON: In addition—in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.
COOPER: Governor [Martin] O’Malley, Snowden?
O’MALLEY: Anderson, Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk. Snowden broke the law. Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here.
COOPER: Senator Sanders, Edward Snowden?
SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.
COOPER: Is he a hero?
SANDERS: He did—he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is (inaudible).
COOPER: Senator [Jim] Webb, Edward Snowden?
WEBB: I—well, I—I would leave his ultimate judgment to the legal system. Here’s what I do believe. We have a serious problem in terms of the collection of personal information in this country. And one of the things that I did during the FISA bill in 2007, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was introduce with Russ Feingold two amendments basically saying, “We understand the realities of how you have to collect this broad information in the Internet age, but after a certain period of time, you need to destroy the personal information that you have if people have not been brought—if criminal justice proceedings have not been brought against them.”
We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use. And they need to be destroyed.
Snowden was charged under the 1917 Espionage Act. According to this law, sharing information relating to the national defense, is a crime punishable by death or imprisonment. There is no specific whistleblower protection under this law. Hillary Clinton’s argument sounds reasonable. Snowden could have raised his concerns with the Inspector General’s Office at the NSA, under the 1998 Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. The truth is that his protections would still be unclear. Whistleblowers are not fully protected from internal reprisals or subsequent prosecutions, and there have been plenty of cases in the past that demonstrated how vulnerable to retaliation the whistleblowers are.
The Democratic Presidential Debate about Edward Snowden’s case teaches us a very important lesson: no matter how well you secure your information, as long as your means are fundamentally wrong, there will always be someone who will challenge your system.