Former Democratic Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel thinks lawmakers opposed to the National Security Agency's phone and Internet surveillance programs should have exposed them long before fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden provided NSA documents to reporters in June.
Unlike Snowden, who is seeking asylum abroad in lieu of a stiff prison sentence, the senators would have been immune from prosecution because of the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause, Gravel told U.S. News.
"Any member of Congress can release any information that they think the public should see," Gravel said. "No member of Congress has availed themselves of that privilege since 1971. That's unfortunate."
Vague warnings to the public, such as those made by Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado were "not good enough," Gravel said.
Before Snowden disclosed the surveillance programs, skeptical senators argued against the 2012 passage of FISA provisions, questioned administration officials about snooping during public hearings and cautioned that Americans would be shocked if they knew the extent of government surveillance – but they did not disclose the programs.
"They're afraid of losing their prestige in the Senate," Gravel said. "That's a clear case and they're the best of the best, think of all the others. It's a clear case of putting your personal ambition above your responsibilities to the people as a leader of the nation."
In 1971 Gravel, then a freshman senator opposed to the Vietnam War, entered the so-called "Pentagon Papers" into the Congressional Record, making the top secret cache of documents public. The action prompted a court battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that congressional staffers are also protected by the Speech or Debate Clause.
"Nixon sent the Pentagon Papers to Congress, where the members could read them, but not take notes. I made that process moot by releasing them," Gravel recalled. Before entering the documents into the record, he met leaker Daniel Ellsberg at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., to acquire the records.
Gravel, 83, left office in 1981. He returned to politics with a 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite his disappointment in senators who oppose the NSA programs, Gravel's disdain for President Barack Obama is even more apparent.
Obama, he says, is "a total fraud" and should be put on trial for murder by the International Court of Justice, a branch of the United Nations commonly known as the World Court. Gravel is confident that Obama would be found guilty.
"Let the World Court prosecute Obama and Bush for the crimes and murders they've committed," he said. "When you take the whole program of the drones, it's unconscionable the number of people killed innocently."
Gravel sees leakers as an essential part of democracy who are, in his view, unjustly persecuted by tyrants posing as democrats. All three branches of government, he said, collaborated in keeping secret for years the NSA programs exposed by Snowden.
"From my point of view Snowden, Manning and the other whistleblowers are people who are following the law a lot more closely than the people who prosecute them," he says. "If you see a crime being committed you have a responsibility to report it."