Democratic Debate: Clinton, Sanders Clash On NSA Spying

Democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparred over the NSA’s mass surveillance program during the first Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CNN, on Tuesday.

The Patriot Act, which is used by the National Security Agency to justify its collection of Americans’ data, was signed into law by former President George W. Bush on Oct. 26, 2001. Clinton, who was a senator in New York at the time, voted for the legislation. Sanders, who was a House representative in Vermont at the time, opposed it.

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton whether she regretted voting for the Patriot Act, and she responded, “No.”

Clinton insisted that the Patriot Act was necessary to ensure security in the aftermath of 9/11 and said that she spoke out about warrantless surveillance during the Bush administration.

“It was necessary to make sure that we were able, after 9/11, to put in place the security that was needed,” Clinton said. “What happened, however, is that the Bush administration began to chip away at that process, and I began to speak about their use of warrantless surveillance.”

“We always have to keep the balance of civil liberties, privacy and security. It’s not easy in a democracy, but we have to keep it in mind,” said Clinton. She did not answer directly if she would end NSA spying.

Sanders said that he would shut down the NSA’s current mass surveillance program.

“I’d shut down what exists right now,” Sanders said. “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. If we are a free country, we have the right to be free. Yes, we have to defend ourselves against terrorism, but there are ways to do that without impinging on our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.”

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However, when it came to the fate of Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who released documents in 2013 revealing information about the NSA’s controversial program, the two candidates came to somewhat similar conclusions.

“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. “He did break the law and I think there should be a penalty to that.”

[RELATED: Rand Paul Explains Why He Would Not Pardon Edward Snowden]

Snowden, who is currently seeking asylum in Russia, is facing felony charges in the United States for leaking classified NSA documents. He has said that he would consider going to prison in order to return to the U.S., as long as he did not “serve as a deterrent to people trying to do the right thing in difficult situations.”

While Clinton did not define exactly the “important information” that has “fallen into a lot of the wrong hands,” she did say that she also believes Snowden should be punished for his actions.

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

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