Hillary Clinton asserted at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden “stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands.”
She seemed to be darkly intimating that the information Snowden gave to journalists in Hong Kong before he was granted asylum in Moscow also ended up with the Chinese and/or Russian governments.
But that conclusion is entirely unsupported by the evidence; it’s a political smear that even the most alarmist Obama administration intelligence officials have not asserted as fact.
As Snowden has repeatedly explained, after turning over copies of the heavily encrypted files to reporters, he destroyed his own before he left Hong Kong.
He did not take the files to Russia “because it wouldn’t serve the public interest,” he told the New York Times in 2013. “There’s a zero percent chance the Russians or Chinese have received any documents,” he said.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times newspaper ran a front-page story in June asserting that Russia and China had “cracked the top-secret cache of files” that the paper, citing anonymous sources, claimed Snowden had brought with him to Moscow. But the story was thoroughly debunked and a video clip of the reporter acknowledging that “we just publish what we believe to be the position of the British government” went viral.
Apparently, Clinton was engaging in similarly hyperbolic, unsupported scare tactics — that is, unless by “the wrong hands” she meant ours: journalists and the public.
Snowden’s attorney, ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner, was one of many who suggested as much on Twitter on Tuesday night:
Government transparency advocate Daniel Schuman reached the same conclusion:
@froomkin By the wrong hands, of course, she means the public finding out about the gov'ts unlawful behavior.
— Daniel Schuman (@danielschuman) October 14, 2015
Or did she mean us?
— Mike Hinton (@crakaveli) October 14, 2015
Snowden turned over his cache of documents to Intercept founding editors Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, and the result has been the exposure — to the public — of the extraordinarily expansive and invasive surveillance apparatus that the U.S. government had secretly built over the years.
In the U.S., laws have already been changed — if only a little. Europeans are balking at sending their data to U.S. servers. And surveillance and privacy are now major issues in the presidential campaign.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said during the debate that “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.”
Sanders said Snowden should face a penalty, but that “what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration.” (That is also Snowden’s position.)
Sanders also said he would immediately shut down the warrantless domestic surveillance program that Snowden exposed. “I’d shut down what exists right now … that virtually every telephone call in this country ends up in a file at the NSA. That is unacceptable to me.”
Clinton’s comments on Snowden were flawed in more than one way. She also insisted, incorrectly, that he could have accomplished his goals by going through normal channels.
“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,” she said.
But Snowden, as a contractor, was not covered by whistleblower protections. He did try going through established channels, but he said his concerns fell on deaf ears. And the response to his leaks has made abundantly clear that no one in his chain of command was the least bit interested in going public with the information.
Some Republicans were delighted with Clinton’s statements about Snowden — though their reasoning varied. Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer cheered Clinton on:
Good for Hillary on Snowden.
— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) October 14, 2015
Right-wing Clinton-haters found another angle of attack, comparing her response to Snowden with the accusations that her private email server was a security risk:
Clinton worried about Snowden info falling into wrong hands? What about your emails, Hillary? #DemDebate
— Michael Brown (@MichaelBrownUSA) October 14, 2015