Hillary Clinton’s Weak Civil-Liberties Record

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Hillary Clinton’s record on civil liberties is at best mediocre to minimal, at worst platitudinous and dismal. The former Secretary of State, who formally announced her candidacy for President today—she’d been the “presumptive front-runner” and “presumed Democratic nominee” since Mitt Romney conceded in November 2012—has largely avoided giving specific answers about government spying.

She criticized it during the George W. Bush administration, but voted for the Patriot Act twice when she was in the Senate, in 2001 and 2006. More recently, she has consistently denounced Edward Snowden for his “outrageous behavior” in leaking the classified documents that revealed the National Security Agency’s massive spying, saying that it aided terrorists, that she “could never condone what he did,” and that he should return to the U.S. “knowing he would be held accountable.”

There are a few bright spots in her record. In 2005, she voted against cutting off debate on whether to renew the Patriot Act’s Section 215, the provisions used to authorize the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone-call data, helping give the Bush administration its first major political defeat on an issue tagged “national security.”

In 2008, she voted against amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that gave legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with government spying, and also authorized the government to collect information from individuals on sites like Google and Facebook—the secret PRISM program revealed by Snowden. At the time, she said the bill didn’t contain enough safeguards and lacked “clear lines of oversight and accountability.”

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Generally, however, Clinton has responded to questions on the issue with bland statements about “a really difficult balancing act.” In February, when tech journalist Kara Swisher asked if she would “throttle back” NSA spying, she answered that “the NSA needs to be more transparent about what it’s doing” and that “people felt betrayed” by the invasion of privacy. But when pressed to give a more specific explanation of what she thought was too much spying power, she said, “I resist saying it has to be this or that.”

She has refused to say explicitly that spying without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment. That kind of bland expression of concern masking either reluctance to challenge established power or support for destructive policies is a political hallmark of the Clintons. “I feel your pain,” President Bill Clinton famously told working-class Americans battered by 12 years of Reaganomics in the early 1990s. His main economic legacy was laying the groundwork that enabled the 1-percent’s 21st-century plunder—the North American Free Trade Agreement, repealing New Deal regulations on Wall Street, and prohibiting the construction of new public housing.

Last August, Hillary Clinton waited almost three weeks to make a public statement after Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. While she did say, “we cannot ignore the inequities that persist in our justice system,” specifically the way it is racially skewed against black men, she swaddled that in platitudes about “the bonds of trust and respect” and “the many decent and respectful law enforcement officers who showed what quality law enforcement looks like.” “Decent,” “respectful,” and “quality” are perhaps not the most accurate adjectives to describe the Ferguson police who were shooting reporters with plastic bullets, arresting black youths sitting in a car in their family’s driveway for “failure to disperse,” and beating a black churchwoman who wouldn’t leave a McDonald’s because she was waiting for her son to come out of the bathroom.

In December, Clinton made a stronger statement, telling a women’s conference in Massachusetts that the United States “has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25% of the world’s total prison population… because we have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance.” She said federal funds should not be used to “buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets or contribute to unnecessary force or arrests.”

Her husband’s administration presided over an exponential increase in mass incarceration. The combined total of state, federal, and local prisoners, less than 500,000 in 1980, passed 2 million in 2000.

On other issues, in 2005, she cosponsored a bill to make burning an American flag a federal crime, although the Supreme Court had ruled in 1989 that such laws violated free speech. The bill tried to circumvent that by limiting its prohibition to acts intended to “intimidate any person or group of persons,” with Clinton comparing flag-torching to the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses. The bill, which didn’t go anywhere, was an obvious attempt to give Democrats a chance to vote to outlaw flag-burning while staving off Republican efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court decision.

She supports Net neutrality, telling a tech-industry conference in February that it would “avoid the worst of the utility regulations.” But in 2011, she quietly endorsed the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have made Web sites legally responsible for copyright-infringing materials posted on them, such as a bootleg video on YouTube or a search engine that listed an overseas pirated-music site. Although the bill was “ostensibly aimed at reaching foreign websites dedicated to providing illegal content,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said, it was written so broadly that it would “allow for removal of enormous amounts of non-infringing content, including political and other speech, from the Web.” It was tabled after massive opposition, including Wikipedia, Google, and about 7,000 other sites going blank for a day in January 2012.

Several other items from her State Department tenure do not bode well for civil-liberties policy. The classified department cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed that in 2009 Clinton personally ordered spying on UN diplomats including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, demanding the collection of information ranging from their Internet passwords to their DNA.

Another cable, also from 2009, showed that the department was well aware of the U.S. government’s pressuring Spain to stop an independent judge from indicting six former Bush administration officials on charges related to the torture of Spanish citizens detained at Guantanamo. The State Department’s response to the WikiLeaks revelations was to order employees without the proper security clearances not to look at the documents online—on the grounds that even though they were publicly available, they were still classified information. On similar grounds, it also warned graduate students applying for jobs there that posting links to the documents or discussing them on social media “would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information.”

And Clinton’s keeping her official e-mail on a private server is not exactly a crystalline exemplar of government transparency. Overall, Hillary Clinton is a corporate Democrat somewhat more hawkish than President Barack Obama on foreign-policy issues, most notably on whether to invade Syria to overthrow the dictatorship of Bashir Assad. If she is elected President, her civil-liberties policies will likely reflect those tendencies.