Former President Bill Clinton told Naval Academy midshipmen Tuesday that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was an "imperfect messenger," but posed important questions about security, technology and freedom in America.
Clinton said Snowden's leaked secrets about government surveillance should force leaders to consider how to balance the use of technology for national security without destroying the liberty "of basically innocent bystanders."
Speaking before the 4,400-member Brigade of Midshipmen and students from dozens of colleges attending a foreign-affairs conference, the former president said technological surveillance must be designed to keep tabs on terrorists and criminals without impeding rights of peaceful people — even if doing so costs more money.
He rejected the notion that America faces an either-or choice about privacy and national security.
"Don't buy into false choices," Clinton told the midshipmen. "There are enough choices you have to make as it is."
In his 51-minute speech at the academy's Alumni Hall, Clinton cited the role of social media in spreading word about political issues in Egypt and the Ukraine, and said technology holds great promise to give voice to people, to share stories across the globe.
But technology and social media have a flip side, Clinton said.
"All the technology in the world will just increase both the intensity and scope of empowerment of people who want to bring things together — and the empowerment of people who want to keep things apart," he said.
Clinton said technology can't replace human connection in world affairs: He recalled when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had a dispute just before signing maps delineating control over key parts of the West Bank. Rabin admitted to an error in the map and promised to hand over a disputed crossroads to Arafat, even though Clinton pointed out that the promise was not binding.
Arafat was OK with that: "He said, 'His word is worth more than any written contract,'" Clinton said. "Personal trust still counts for something, and its absence is devastating."
Midshipman Colleen Rudolph of Annapolis, a senior English major planning a career in the Marine Corps, said she was happy Clinton didn't give a stock speech about leadership. She found the former president's remarks insightful regarding how technology can help some, but hold back others who don't embrace it or don't have access.
Midshipman Zachary Dannelly, a sophomore cyber operations major from Louisville, Ky., agreed with Clinton's assessment of technology's benefits and limits. It's important to remember behind every email, text message or tweet is a real person, Dannelly said. "It's up to the users to draw it to strengths, not weaknesses."
Clinton's speech was the Forrestal Lecture, the centerpiece of the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, which drew students from 74 colleges and universities in 24 countries, 150 midshipmen and other undergraduate students to Annapolis for three days of discussions of foreign affairs. This year's theme is "Human Security in the Information Age."
The lecture is named for the late James V. Forrestal, the nation's first secretary of defense, from 1947 until 1949. Forrestal also was secretary of the Navy at the end of World War II and served in the Navy in World War I.
The Forrestal Lecture often draws big-name speakers to Annapolis. In 2012, Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, delivered the speech.
The former president said he researched past speakers and was most worried about following in his wife's footsteps. He said he read her speech from two years ago and thought it was better than his. Her response: "Well, that's as it should be."
The audience included dignitaries such as retired Adm. Charles R. Larson, a former academy superintendent, and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, whose run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination was endorsed by Clinton on Tuesday.
In his remarks, Clinton thanked Brown, an Army veteran, for his "friendship and service." Brown and Gov. Martin O'Malley were early supporters of Hillary Clinton in her 2008 race for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama, Brown's Harvard Law School classmate. The lieutenant governor is competing with Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County in the June 24 Democratic primary.