Hillary Clinton weighs in on Edward Snowden: Is that appropriate?

Generally, former secretaries of State stay quiet on matters that affect their successors – such as the Edward Snowden leaks. But Hillary Clinton, eyeing a presidential run, has different rules.

Scott Eisen/AP
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Meeting in Chicago earlier this month. The former first lady offered her most extensive description of her post-Obama administration agenda since leaving her role as the nation's top diplomat.

In Washington, there are informal rules governing whether former public officials should weigh in on urgent policy matters occupying the dockets of their successors.

Rule No. 1: Don’t, unless called upon.

But for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a private citizen, the rules don’t necessarily apply. After all, she is pondering a 2016 presidential bid, and her every move and utterance are assessed in that light. And, well, she’s a Clinton, and therefore as powerful as anyone in politics today. She and her husband, the former president, usually dictate the hows, whens, and whats of their public statements.

And so with that in mind, or so it seems, she registered her strong feelings Monday night on the biggest foreign policy matter – crisis even – facing President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry: Edward Snowden’s international quest for asylum in the wake of his disclosure of classified government surveillance tactics.

Ms. Clinton criticized China for allowing Snowden to exit Hong Kong last weekend even after the US charged him with espionage and theft.

"That kind of action is not only detrimental to the US-China relationship but it sets a bad precedent that could unravel the intricate international agreements about how countries respect the laws – and particularly the extradition treaties," the former secretary of State told an audience in Los Angeles.

Clinton’s remarks came during a 90-minute talk sponsored by the American Jewish University, according to the Associated Press. During the appearance she also said Mr. Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor, engaged in "outrageous behavior" in releasing details of the National Security Agency’s data collection program PRISM, which tracks citizens’ e-mails and phone calls in an effort to root out possible terrorist activity.

While Clinton is on message in a sense, echoing comments made by other administration officials, it’s not clear if she was given the go-ahead to comment. She hardly tiptoed into the broader national conversation about government surveillance and the public’s right to know. She used some seriously tough talk. Would the Obama administration suggest that what’s gone down with Snowden’s release from Hong Kong threatens to “unravel” key agreements between China and the United States?

A call to Secretary Kerry’s communications shop at the State Department was not returned.

Kerry, for his part, has indeed used some direct language of his own this week.

“It would be very disappointing if he was willfully allowed to board an airplane” from Hong Kong to Moscow, Kerry said of Snowden at a news conference in New Delhi yesterday, adding that he “would be deeply troubled” if Russia and China knew of Snowden’s plans, “and there would be, without any question, some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences.”

“I’d urge them to live within the law,” Kerry added. “It’s in the interest of everyone.”

Kerry said, too, that “people may die as a consequence” of what Snowden has revealed.

So the newly minted secretary of State hasn’t exactly been absent from the administration’s efforts to advise world leaders who might be pondering whether Snowden should be extradited to the US. Clinton isn’t filling a void there, but with the spotlight she draws with every appearance and declaration, she risks eclipsing Kerry.

Still, for her long-term purposes, she’s likely reminding folks, in case they’d already forgotten, that she knows a thing or two about the complicated relationship with China and that she has something to say about our national security policies.

Meanwhile, Clinton has made more of her own news of late, stoking speculation that she’s prepping for a White House bid. She joined Twitter to much discussion. She gave a policy speech in Chicago outlining her renewed effort via the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation to tackle economic equity issues for women and launch an early childhood development initiative. And she told an audience in Toronto that she’d like to see a woman in the Oval Office.

"Let me say this, hypothetically speaking, I really do hope that we have a woman president in my lifetime," Clinton said last weekend. "And whether it's next time or the next time after that, it really depends on women stepping up and subjecting themselves to the political process, which is very difficult."

But she’s not president yet, and she’s no longer secretary of State, though one could be forgiven for forgetting that in recent days.

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