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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate Snowden, Ignore Whistleblower Protection Issues

During the first Democratic Party presidential debate on CNN, the five candidates the cable news network included in the debate were asked about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Only one candidate, Lincoln Chafee, opposed jailing Snowden if he were to return to the United states.

All the other candidates, including Bernie Sanders, made some statement about how Snowden had broken the law or the U.S. justice system should resolve the matter of whether he should be prosecuted.

Chafee said he would “bring him home.” The courts “ruled” the American government acted “illegally.” Snowden “showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment.” He would not support jail time for Snowden.

Jim Webb evaded the question and said with a kind of primeval flare that Snowden’s “ultimate judgment” should be left to the legal system.

“Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk,” Martin O’Malley declared. “Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin.” He sounded as if he was a neoconservative who once served in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Bernie Sanders answered, “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.” But, then added, “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.” (Moderator Anderson Cooper actually cut off the last part of Sanders’ answer.)

“He broke the laws of the United States,” Hillary Clinton stated. “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.”

Asked if Snowden should do jail time, Clinton responded “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.”

Chafee, the former senator and governor of Rhode Island, has shown the strongest support for Snowden. In his campaign announcement speech, he declared, “Our sacred Constitution requires a warrant before unreasonable searches, which includes our phone records. Let’s enforce that and while we’re at it allow Edward Snowden to come home.”

Each of the other candidates have shown they lack an understanding of the sacrifice Snowden has already made. Or, the candidates have demonstrated willful ignorance on the issue of whistleblower protection in America.

Hillary Clinton has been the worst when it comes to spreading misinformation about Snowden. Back in February, she said during an interview for Re/Code, “I can never condone what he did, and I think he stole millions of documents. And the great irony is the vast majority of those documents had nothing to do with American civil liberties, privacy, or anything affecting us here at home. They were about information we had vis-à-vis China, Russia, Iran, others.”

She argued in April 2014 that President Barack Obama gave a speech where he tried to ignite the debate Snowden wanted to start. America has “all these protections for whistleblowers” so he could have been part of the debate, except he fled to China and Russia. 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 that protect privacy. Snowden cannot champion privacy and liberty from Russia.

Again, it is not as if Sanders is all that much better. He said in January 2014, “The interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile from the country whose freedoms he cared enough about to risk his own freedom.” It is unclear what would constitute a long prison sentence, but it seems Sanders would support a sentence of a few years.

In June 2014, Clinton maintained, as she did in the debate, Snowden would have had whistleblower protection if he had contacted members of Congress. This is essentially the “proper channels” argument—that he could have gone to an inspector general and raised concerns about NSA programs.

What Clinton avoids or outright ignores is how Snowden was a contractor. There are very few protections for intelligence contractors who become whistleblowers. If Snowden had made disclosures to someone on an oversight committee and was accused of a leak, he would have to defend himself in a hearing controlled by the very same agencies retaliating against him.

Recall, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales led a “massive manhunt,” as PBS FRONTLINE highlighted, into any employees in any U.S. 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.

This is the kind of treatment Snowden had in store for him if he remained and tried to challenge the global security state from within the U.S.

Clinton relied on innuendo as she claimed during the debate that information disclosed by Snowden has ended up in the “wrong hands.” But, as others have pointed out, the information ended up in the hands of journalists. It then ended up in the hands of the public, who had access to information the government was deliberately concealing from citizens so they could engage in surveillance officials knew was illegal or questionable.

There is absolutely no proof, which has ever been presented, to substantiate the claim that Snowden’s disclosures endangered Americans. As far as the general public can tell, the U.S. military is still fully capable of waging multiple wars with coalition forces and militia-type groups. The NSA and countries in the “Five Eyes” club can still engage in global surveillance and sweep up the communications of entire populations without any political cost to anyone in power.

The NSA may still engage in offensive or defensive cyber warfare against China. In fact, the Office of Personnel Management hack was way, way more damaging than what Snowden did, and the reaction from officials has been less hysterical than the initial reaction to Snowden.

However, because CNN frames questions about whistleblowers by asking whether they are heroes or traitors, what the public gets from candidates are answers, which are either heavy on bravado or laden with misinformation.

This has been the go-to framing since Chelsea Manning’s disclosures to WikiLeaks. To the extent that media cares about people who reveal information to the public, news outlets ask if the public sees these individuals as heroes or traitors.

Labeling a whistleblower a hero or a traitor terribly skirts the issue, which is how the Obama administration’s aggressive policies toward truth-telling has driven good government employees to silence themselves, go along with corruption, or flee their positions in government to speak out or find a new future doing something they believe will be more honorable.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."