Toward the end of the first Democratic presidential debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper turned to former US senator and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee and asked, “Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?”
“I would bring him home,” Chafee said of the American whistle-blower who leaked classified National Security Agency documents that exposed details of the NSA’s surveillance programs in the United States and abroad.
“Bring him home, no jail time?” asked Cooper.
“[What] Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment,” said Chafee. “So I would bring him home.”
Cooper then turned to former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was of a different opinion altogether.
“He broke the laws of the United States,” said Clinton, who claimed Snowden wasn’t really a whistle-blower but someone who “stole very important information.”
“I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music,” she concluded.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was more nuanced in his response.
“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,” said Sanders. But the Vermonter added that “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…”
No matter where people stand on the question of pardoning Snowden, the exchange Cooper invited was a healthy one for a society that must wrestle with questions about balancing security and liberty. Candidates expressed distinct opinions. They disagreed. And citizens were invited to consider the issues that arise when official secrecy and government lawlessness are challenged.
My only objection was that the CNN host did not follow up—especially on the Fourth Amendment issues raised by Chafee and the claim that Snowden should be seen as a criminal rather than a whistle-blower.
But at least the exchange was had. And—thanks to Chafee—dissents from mainstream media and political assumptions were aired.
That’s what is supposed to happen in debates. They’re supposed to be about ideas—especially ideas that push the discourse beyond repetition of conventional wisdom.