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.