The Democratic Debate Surveillance and Snowden

Michael Policy

The first democratic debate last Tuesday was a far cry from the previous two debates staring a laundry list of Republicans. Just 5 candidates took the stage and were much more successful at staying on topic than their republican counterparts. During the two hours they were on the stage (full transcript here) they were able to convey their varying policies on a range of issues. Gun control, foreign policy, racial tensions, the 2008 recession, and immigration were all discussed at length. Fortunately, even the topic of the NSA, mass surveillance, and Edward Snowden were discussed.

Democratic Debate and Edward Snowden

When it comes down to privacy vs national security one question has been used as an immediate gauge as to which side you are on. Usually, getting someone’s opinion on Edward Snowden is a fair indicator of where a person stands on mass  surveillance. Although it can be considered a generalization on a complex subject, asking someone whether Edward Snowden is a traitor or hero is usually a telltale sign if that person supports the NSA and mass surveillance in the name of national security.

At one point during the democratic debate Andersoon Cooper, the moderator and CNN journalist, asked this very question. He asked each one point blank, whether Snowden is a traitor or hero and how they would handle the whistle blower.

For activists in support of Snowden and major mass surveillance reform only one of the candidates had the right answer. Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, the first to answer the question said, “the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.” The Governor made it perfectly clear that he would bring Snowden home with no jail time.

Bernie Sanders, a Senator from Vermont, threaded a fine needle on the issue. When initially asked Sanders replied, “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.” Although he stopped short of saying that he should avoid jail time Sanders did say that, “I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration,” when prosecuting Snowden.

Following Sanders, Jim Webb, a former Senator from Virginia, followed nearly the same course. He stated that he would leave, “his [Snowden’s] ultimate judgment to the legal system.” but added that, “we have a serious problem in terms of the collection of personal information in this country.”

Hillary Clinton, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had a considerably more harsh take on Snowden than the other 3 candidates. Clinton didn’t outright call Snowden a traitor but she did say in effect that he would face the full wrath of the judicial system and sprinkled in some misinformation as well. Clinton said, “he broke the laws of the United States… 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.”

The misinformation- that is widely known- is that because Snowden was a contractor, not an employee of the NSA, he had zero protection when it came to whistle blowing. Furthermore even if he did have ‘protection’ and ran his concerns through the ‘proper’ channels it is clear, through the experience of several other government employees (that had whistleblower ‘protection’), that he might have been targeted by the government- and his concerns would definitely not have been heard.

Governor O’Malley’s only comment on the subject was “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.” This again isn’t entirely true. Not only has Snowden said repeatedly that home (the US) is where he wants to be, but also his passport was revoked while he was in Russia, leaving him no other choice than to seek asylum within Putin’s borders.

Candidates’ Views on the NSA

Immediately before the Candidates discussed Snowden during the democratic debate, Sanders, Chafee, and Clinton all briefly mentioned the USA PATRIOT Act. Anderson Cooper started the brief topic discussion by asking about the dichotomy of Clinton’s and Chafee’s votes for the Patriot Act while also emphasizing civil liberties.

Chafee responded by saying, “99 to one vote [referencing an earlier mention in the debate of Glass-Steagall in 1999 that reduced bank regulations] for the Patriot Act, and it was seen as at the time modernizing our ability to do what we’ve always done to tap phones which always required a warrant.  And I voted for that.” Which is accurate, that’s exactly how it was sold to Congress and the American people.

Cooper then asked if he regretted that vote and Chafee said, “No, no.  As long as you’re getting a warrant…the Patriot Act, section 215 started to get broadened too far.  So I would be in favor of addressing and reforming section 215 of the Patriot Act.” Which is better response against surveillance than any of the Republican’s gave during either GOP debate except for perhaps Rand Paul.

When the question was posed to Clinton she continued her on-the-fence stance. Although she expressed a negative view of the way the Patriot Act is being used, “…the Bush administration began to chip away at that process.  And I began to speak out about their use of warrantless surveillance and the other behavior that they engaged in,” she refused to commit to a firm stance either way on government surveillance.

When the conversation was turned to Sanders, Cooper mentioned that he was the only person on the stage to vote against the Patriot Act to thunderous applause. Sanders then went on record saying that he would shut down the NSA.

It is perhaps a bit far fetched to believe that even the president could shut down the NSA (although a president arguably has the authority to). Regardless, Sanders said, “I’d shut down what exists right now is that virtually every telephone call in this country ends up in a file at the NSA.  That is unacceptable to me. But it’s not just government surveillance.  I think the government is involved in our e-mails; is involved in our websites.  Corporate America is doing it as well.”

When he said that I think everyone with surveillance concerns rejoiced at least a little. It is galvanizing to hear a politician with a legitimate shot at being president say what so many netizens believe.

Although I am less surprised that surveillance entered the democratic debate than the republican debate I am equally delighted that it is being discussed. Despite what the candidates say about Snowden, we would not be having this discussion at all were it not for him.

As far as who won the democratic debate it seems the answer is split between two people. The media seems to tout Hillary Clinton as the winner whereas most viewers view Senator Bernie Sanders as the clear cut victor.

If social media is any indication, then Sanders is definitive the winner. Sanders gained over 34,000 twitter followers during the debate, whereas Clinton, in second place, gained only 13,000. Ironically Donald Trump bested them both by gaining o 60,000 twitter followers  Plus, in the four hours following the democratic debate, Sanders received $1.5 in donations.

Overall, Governor O’Malley summed up the debate when he said:

…what you heard tonight was a very, very different debate than from the sort of debate you heard from the two presidential Republican debates. On this stage – on this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.


 feature image courtesy of DonkeyHotey via Flickr

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