Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: NSA leaker is 'a felon'

Published On: Jun 25 2013 04:35:27 AM HST
Updated On: Jun 25 2013 04:53:10 AM HST

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the man behind the NSA leaks "a felon" in remarks to executives at the Hearst Corporation on Monday.

NEW YORK -

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke publicly Monday about the leaks at the National Security Agency that revealed a secret surveillance program conducted by the U.S. government.

“I would call him a felon,” Gates said of Edward Snowden, the man who has publicly declared that he is behind the leaks of classified documents that have put President Barack Obama on the defensive.

Snowden, a former government contractor, was charged with espionage over the weekend. He boarded a plane from Hong Kong to Moscow on Sunday, but has not been seen since. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Snowden remained in a transit area at the airport in Moscow.

“I think in a way his motives, and it says a lot about him, the travel itinerary that apparently he has planned,” Gates said in a question-and-answer session before executives of the Hearst Corporation on Monday. “The truth is, a person of conscience would make the revelations and stay here and face the music, and not flee to the protection of the most authoritarian governments of the world, which is one of the supreme ironies of all of this.”

Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador claiming it is “unlikely that I will have a fair trial or humane treatment” if handed over to U.S. officials, according to a letter from Snowden read by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino.

Gates rejected any notion that Snowden is a whistleblower.

“This is a betrayal of trust,” Gates said. “He raises all these moral questions. I’ve got a few of my own.”

Gates served as secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011 under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama. He also served as director of the CIA from 1991-1993 during his 27 years as an intelligence professional.

Gates defended the surveillance program, saying that the government has safeguards in place to make sure that authority isn’t abused.

“As a result of the scandals that affected CIA in the early and mid-1970s, the United States government, all three branches, both political parties, have spent 35 years erecting institutions of oversight of intelligence operations,” Gates said. “If a single individual within the system can decide for himself or herself, that his or her judgment overrides all of that, of all of those institutions that I’ve described, then that’s a formula for chaos and anarchy.”

“I can only imagine the frustration and the anger, and the sense of betrayal,” Gates said when asked about members of the intelligence community following the disclosures and their efforts to find Snowden.

“I present it as item of evidence No. 1 for the reality that the American government is not all-seeing and all-powerful. If we were reading everybody’s mail, we’d know where the hell he was going,” he said.

In the hour-long discussion, Gates also fielded questions about Syria and the budget battles in Washington.

On Syria, Gates said he supports the path that the president has chosen, but questions how much further the U.S. will become involved.

“I suspect it won’t be enough to get both sides to the bargaining table. And then the question becomes, ‘What next?’” Gates said. “Do you do more or do you back out? It’s harder to back out now that you’ve decided to do something.”

Gates criticized Congress for the budget sequestration and laid blame on both parties for failing to be civil.

“There are things that the president and the Congress can do. They can’t just claim helplessness in the face of these institutional challenges. They can start to treat each other more respectfully. They can listen to each other. They can avoid demonizing each other. They can avoid purposely distorting the facts,” Gates said.

“You need bipartisan solutions that can be sustained through more than one presidency and more than one Congress. And we don’t see any evidence of that in Washington,” Gates added.

He also cautioned that ongoing stalemates in Congress could have an impact beyond our borders.

“If we’re paralyzed and we can’t get our act together, I think that has global consequences.”

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