Somewhere in Russia, Edward Snowden Is Smiling

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4380) }}

What We're Following See More »
LITTLE MARCO FOR SENATE
Trump to Rubio: Run for Reelection
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump may have defeated Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential ambitions, but he wants the man he dubbed Little Marco to keep his job in the Senate. "Poll data shows that @marcorubio does by far the best in holding onto his Senate seat in Florida," Trump tweeted Thursday evening. "Important to keep the MAJORITY. Run Marco!" Trump is not the first to urge Rubio to run, though the senator has said such a move is unlikely. The filing deadline is June 24. 

Source:
FIRST SITTING POTUS TO VISIT
At Hiroshima, Obama Calls For Nuke-Free World
1 hours ago
THE LATEST

President Obama called for an end to nuclear weapons Friday during a somber visit to Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan, where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb 71 years ago. "That is the future we can choose,” Obama said. “A future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not for the bomb of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”

Source:
AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
19 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
21 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
TRUMP FLOATED IDEA ON JIMMY KIMMEL’S SHOW
Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
22 hours ago
THE LATEST
×