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Clinton at Naval Academy: Snowden leaks pose important questions

Former President Bill Clinton speaks to midshipmen and guests at the U.S. Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference on Tuesday, April 8, 2014. The conference features 3 days of discussions of foreign affairs.

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Former President Bill Clinton told Naval Academy midshipmen on Tuesday that accused National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may be an “imperfect messenger,” but he has posed important questions about security, technology and freedom in America.

Clinton said Snowden’s leaked secrets about government surveillance should force future 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 on the rights of peaceful people — even if it costs more money.

Clinton rejected the notion that America faces an "either-or" choice about privacy and national security.

“Don’t buy into false choices,” he 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 also spoke about the promise technology holds to give voice to more people, to share stories across the globe. He cited the role of social media in spreading word about political issues in Egypt and the Ukraine.

But technology and social media have a flip side, Clinton said: They can be used by those with ill intent.

“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’s speech was the Forrestal Lecture, the centerpiece of the annual Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, which draws 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 Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, delivered the lecture.

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 was: “Well, that’s as it should be.”

Other conference speakers this year include retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the NSA; John D. Negroponte, a former ambassador to several countries who is now with a nonprofit security organization; and Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ambassador to the United States.

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