Somewhere in Russia, Edward Snowden Is Smiling

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President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.
National Journal
James Oliphant
Aug. 9, 2013, 1:31 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama couldn’t say it — he denied it re­peatedly in fact — but Ed­ward Snowden was very much the reas­on he felt com­pelled to stand be­fore the na­tion­al press on a sun-baked Fri­day Au­gust af­ter­noon and at­tempt to ex­plain why his ad­min­is­tra­tion would pur­sue re­forms of its coun­terter­ror­ism pro­grams even though — and this is the tricky part — he wouldn’t con­cede that those pro­grams are flawed in any way.

That brings us back to Snowden, the whis­tleblower/pat­ri­ot/trait­or squirreled away some­where in Rus­sia after re­veal­ing key op­er­a­tion­al de­tails of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s do­mest­ic sur­veil­lance pro­grams. The drip-drip of dis­clos­ures was slowly erod­ing the pub­lic’s faith in the sys­tem, the pres­id­ent said Fri­day, and he needed to take steps to re­as­sure the world that it wasn’t be­ing ab­used. He wor­ried aloud that Amer­ic­ans were in­creas­ingly view­ing the gov­ern­ment as an Or­wellian “Big Broth­er.”

“It’s not enough for me as pres­id­ent to have con­fid­ence in these pro­grams,” Obama said be­fore re­port­ers in the White House East Room. “The Amer­ic­an people need to have con­fid­ence in them, as well.”

For the pres­id­ent, the day marked an at­tempt to wrest some con­trol of a situ­ation that in­creas­ingly threatens to dis­rupt the na­tion­al se­cur­ity cal­cu­lus. Late last month, an at­tempt by lib­er­als and liber­tari­an Re­pub­lic­ans in the House to lim­it the NSA’s au­thor­ity fell inches short. To that end, the pres­id­ent an­nounced that he would work with Con­gress to re­write a key sec­tion of the Pat­ri­ot Act, push for more op­pos­ing views be­fore the shad­owy For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, move to de­clas­si­fy more na­tion­al se­cur­ity doc­u­ments, and ap­point an out­side pan­el to ex­am­ine wheth­er the sur­veil­lance pro­grams strike the prop­er bal­ance between se­cur­ity and civil liber­ties.

Obama, as well as seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, did their best to paint the new ini­ti­at­ives as a product of a re­view pro­cess the pres­id­ent com­menced when he first as­sumed of­fice, with Obama re­peatedly not­ing Fri­day that he had cri­ti­cized some NSA pro­grams as a sen­at­or. But just about no one was buy­ing that. And the pres­id­ent ul­ti­mately ad­mit­ted that Snowden’s ac­tions had forced the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand.

“The leaks triggered a much more rap­id and pas­sion­ate re­sponse than would have been the case if I had simply ap­poin­ted this re­view board,” Obama said, while adding, “I ac­tu­ally think we would have got­ten to the same place — and we would have done so without put­ting at risk our na­tion­al se­cur­ity.”

Still, Obama wasn’t ready to re­vise his as­sess­ment of Snowden, who, he re­minded the press, has been charged with mul­tiple felon­ies. “I don’t think he was a pat­ri­ot,” Obama said.

Even as the pres­id­ent was out­lining his plans, he was just as quick to in­sist that the NSA’s wide lat­it­ude to col­lect data isn’t be­ing ab­used. “Amer­ica is not in­ter­ested in spy­ing on or­din­ary people,” Obama said. The sur­veil­lance pro­grams, he said, were valu­able and “should be pre­served.” The flaw, if there was one, he said, lay in his as­sump­tion that the pub­lic would trust that the “checks and bal­ances” in place between the ad­min­is­tra­tion, Con­gress, and the courts was enough to se­cure per­son­al free­dom. In­stead, he said, after Snowden’s rev­el­a­tions, “I think people have ques­tions about this pro­gram.”

The in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion, which will be com­prised of ex­perts from the in­tel­li­gence, civil liber­ties, pri­vacy and tech sec­tors and which will re­lease a pre­lim­in­ary re­port in 60 days, will be tasked with giv­ing the pub­lic a more com­plete pic­ture of NSA op­er­a­tions. “Let’s put the whole ele­phant out there so people know ex­actly what they’re look­ing at,” Obama said.

The NSA will be giv­en a new high-rank­ing of­fi­cial charged with pro­tect­ing civil liber­ties, while there may be some kind of at­tempt to place a sim­il­ar civil-liber­ties ad­voc­ate be­fore the FISA court, which over­whelm­ingly ap­proves gov­ern­ment ap­plic­a­tions for sur­veil­lance op­er­a­tions.

The late-sum­mer press­er may also have been an ef­fort to quell one source of con­tro­versy — the NSA pro­grams — even as oth­ers threaten to erupt upon his re­turn from a Martha’s Vine­yard va­ca­tion. He down­played grow­ing ant­ag­on­ism with Rus­sia and its pres­id­ent, Vladi­mir Putin, over the shel­ter­ing of Snowden, say­ing the two coun­tries would con­tin­ue to work to­geth­er where pos­sible. He warned about the threat posed by al-Qaida in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula even as he main­tained that its ca­pa­city to do harm on the level of the Sept. 11 at­tacks had been decim­ated — a mixed mes­sage that has had the ad­min­is­tra­tion strug­gling of late. And he again urged Con­gress to pass a com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill over House ob­jec­tions.

And, there’s that loom­ing budget show­down with Re­pub­lic­ans this fall. Find­ing surer ground, the pres­id­ent was quick to ham­mer those in the GOP who have called for a gov­ern­ment shut­down if his health care plan isn’t de­fun­ded. “I think the really in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is why it is my friends in the oth­er party have made pre­vent­ing these people from get­ting health care their holy grail,” Obama said. “Their num­ber one pri­or­ity is mak­ing sure 30 mil­lion people don’t get health care,” call­ing the threat a “bad idea.”

That mark­er thrown, the pres­id­ent heads off for his sum­mer va­ca­tion. But as sure as the first day of school, tur­moil on just about every front awaits his re­turn.

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