Hillary's Evasive Views on the NSA

On the eve of her presumptive bid for the White House, the former senator is willfully obscuring the positions she would take as president.

Hillary Clinton is almost certain to launch a bid for the presidency. But at least for now, she's determined to keep the public guessing about her stance on NSA spying. As Edward Snowden's revelations forced the issue to the fore of national debate, she kept mum, even as other prospective candidates staked out positions.

On Tuesday, the technology journalist Kara Swisher raised the subject of surveillance while questioning the former Secretary of State. "Would you throttle back the NSA in the ways that President Obama has promised but that haven't come to pass?" she asked. Clinton's successfully evasive answer unfolded as follows:

Clinton: Well, I think the NSA needs to be more transparent about what it is doing, sharing with the American people, which it wasn't. And I think a lot of the reaction about the NSA, people felt betrayed. They felt, wait, you didn't tell us you were doing this. And all of a sudden now, we're reading about it on the front page...

So when you say, "Would you throttle it back?" Well, the NSA has to act lawfully. And we as a country have to decide what the rules are. And then we have to make it absolutely clear that we're going to hold them accountable. What we had because of post-9/11 legislation was a lot more flexibility than I think people really understood, and was not explained to them. I voted against the FISA Amendments in 2008 because I didn't think they went far enough to kind of hold us accountable in the Congress for what was going on.

Swisher: By flexibility you mean too much spying power, really.

Clinton: Well yeah but how much is too much? And how much is not enough? That's the hard part. I think if Americans felt like, number one, you're not going after my personal information, the content of my personal information. But I do want you to get the bad guys, because I don't want them to use social media, to use communications devices invented right here to plot against us. So let's draw the line. And I think it's hard if everybody's in their corner. So I resist saying it has to be this or that. I want us to come to a better balance.

This will not do. The answer elides the fact that Clinton has not been a passive actor in surveillance policy. "What the rules are" is something that she was responsible for helping to decide. She served in the United States Senate from 2001 to 2009. She cast votes that enabled the very NSA spying that many now regard as a betrayal. And she knew all about what the NSA wasn't telling the public. To say now that the NSA should've been more transparent raises this question: Why wasn't Clinton among the Democrats working for more transparency?

Clinton may resist "saying" that surveillance policy "has to be this or that," but it must be something specific. "Let's draw the line" and "I want us to come to a better balance" are shameless weasel phrases when you're vying to call the shots. What is being balanced in her view? What should the NSA have revealed earlier? How much transparency should it provide going forward? What does the law require of the NSA? Since 9/11, when has the NSA transgressed against the law as Clinton sees it? Those questions hint at the many ways that her position is evasive. So long as no one else contests her party's nomination, she can get away with it.