In an interview with CNN in Tanzania, where George W. Bush and his wife Laura are helping to renovate a health clinic, the former president demonstrated his characteristic certitude in defending mass surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and rendering a judgment on former-NSA-contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden.
“I think there needs to be a balance, and as the president explained, there is a proper balance,” Bush said, defending the NSA’s activities.
“I put that program in place to protect the country,” he added. “One of the certainties was that civil liberties were guaranteed.”
Bush’s praise won’t do much to reassure those who are critical of the bulk collection of metadata that has caused an uproar since Snowden first released classified documents to The Guardian. Democrats dramatically opposed Bush’s NSA surveillance program when it was first revealed in 2005. A slight majority of the president’s party approves of the NSA’s activities now, according to a Pew poll released last month.
However, those programs were conducted without warrants and outside the jurisdiction of any court. The programs, which are broadly authorized under the PATRIOT Act, have since been covered under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the telecoms that participated in the extra-legal program were granted retrospective immunity.
Congress has twice voted to keep details of these programs secret. A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asking for details of how information is collected under the PATRIOT Act.
The former president wouldn’t go as far as his vice president Dick Cheney, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who have all called Snowden a “traitor.”
“I think he damaged the security of the country,” Bush said, when asked if he would use that word to describe the 29-year-old, who is said to have asked for asylum in Russia.
Snowden’s leaks have now documented far more than the domestic surveillance. He has released documents that reportedly suggest U.S. spy activities against Russia, China and even the European Union.
Asked about former South African president Nelson Mandela, who has been hospitalized for nearly a month, Bush said, “His legacy will last for a long time.”
The former president didn’t hedge his respect even when CNN’s Robyn Curnow pointed out that Mandela was very critical of Bush during the Iraq War.
“He wasn’t the only guy,” Bush said. “It’s OK. I made decisions that were the right decisions. History will ultimately judge. I never held someone’s opinion against him; I didn’t look at him differently because he didn’t agree with me on an issue.”
Africa is the site of the Bush administration’s most lasting success. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief likely saved as many as five million lives.