By Julian Hattem - 04/25/14 02:54 PM EDT
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she is baffled about leaker Edward Snowden's motive for fleeing the country to expose U.S. surveillance programs.
Instead of hiding out in China and then Russia, Snowden could have taken whistle-blower protections and stayed in the U.S., the former first lady said this week.
"When he emerged, and when he absconded with all that material, I was puzzled because we have all these protections for whistle-blowers," she said in Wednesday night remarks at the University of Connecticut, as seen in a video clip that surfaced on Friday.
The former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor has sought refuge in Russia since last year and has been charged with multiple counts of espionage and stealing documents. Many critics have said that Snowden should have taken his concerns up the chain of command instead of leaking them to media outlets, which may have helped the country's enemies.
But despite Clinton's faith in whistle-blower protections, Snowden would likely face decades in prison if he ever returned to the United States.
Whistle-blower laws in the United States do not apply to employees or contractors at U.S. intelligence agencies, like Snowden. Additionally, the types of programs he has revealed are generally considered to be legal under current law, which would make it more difficult for him to obtain legal protection.
Clinton also seemed to indicate that she believed that foreign spies, terrorists and criminals may have been able to get their hands on documents the former contractor took about the NSA and other arms of government, even if he never meant to hand them over.
"I think turning over a lot of that material intentionally or unintentionally, because of the way it can be drained, gave all kinds of information, not only to big countries but to networks and terrorist groups alike," she said.
Clinton, who would be the presumptive Democratic front-runner should she choose to run for president in 2016, also criticized Snowden for appearing on national television in a way that seemed supportive of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"And then he calls into a Putin talk show and says 'President Putin do you spy on people?' And President Putin says 'Well, from one intelligence professional to another, of course not,' " she said to chuckles from the audience. "Oh thank you so much. I mean really. I don’t know. I have a hard time following it."
She also seemed to defend the intent behind many of the controversial programs, though she did not directly mention the NSA.
While secretary of State, she said, "we were attacked every hour, more than once an hour" by incoming cyberattacks. And whenever she flew to Russia or China, "we would leave all of our electronic equipment on the plane with the batteries out."
The issue of surveillance has proved to be a defining one for prospective 2016 candidates.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a potential leading contender on the other side of the aisle, has been a vocal critic of the NSA and filed a class-action lawsuit against the Obama administration over the surveillance habits earlier this year.