President Obama said a review of the NSA could have come “without putting at risk our national security”, and therefore, declared, “No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden is a patriot” at a press conference today on spying transparency. Obama insisted he had ordered a review of surveillance programs before the “NSA leaker” kicked off a “not always fully informed” debate, but will implement spying reforms.
Specifically, Obama will pursue reforms of how the Patriot Act authorizes the NSA to conduct surveillance, add a public privacy advocate to the secret NSA courts, build a website laying out what the NSA collects and what it doesn’t, and create an independent cybersecurity processes review agency.
Obama said earlier in the conference that “given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.” That seems somewhat incongruent with his opinion of Edward Snowden’s character, which was met with disgust by some in the media. The whisteblower revealed spying practices that potentially endanger Americans’ liberty — a founding principle of the nation, and yet…
“As I said in my opening remarks, I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. My preference — and I think the American people’s preference — would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place, because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn’t require, potentially, some additional reforms. That’s exactly what I called for.
So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden’s been charged with three felonies. If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case. If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistle-blower protection to the intelligence community for the first time.
So there were other avenues available for somebody’s whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions. But having said that, once the leaks have happened, what we’ve seen is information come out in drips and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways. Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct the record. But by that time, it’s too late or we’ve moved on.”
Obama did provide Snowden with a light commendation, saying “there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through — and I’d sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through”.
Perhaps this slower, less transparent review wouldn’t have garnered as many headlines, but Obama explained “I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.”
We’ll now have to wait and see if the rapid reforms catalyzed by Snowden actually provide citizens more protection and restore confidence that the government is being honest with the American people. The issue is growing beyond one of the philosophical values of the nation, and into one with negative consequences for the economy. Critics expect American technology businesses to lose billions of dollars as clients choose foreign services they believe are less subject to surveillance.
It’s not just Americans Obama has to convince that the NSA is using surveillance appropriately, but the entire world.