With Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance scandal still dominating the news, President Obama yesterday was forced to step to the podium at the White House and offer the most detail on the issue than he has publicly served up since the Snowden affair began.
The president announced a series of measures intended to ensure that the U.S. is not abusing the surveillance apparatus to spy on Americans. While acknowledging that the Snowden leaks accelerated the administration’s actions by diminishing public trust, Obama noted that back in May he had expressed the need for the administration to review its surveillance policies as he talked about the drone program.
Illustrating the sticky nature of American intelligence, the nation was in the midst of responding to a vague yet ominous terror warning by shutting down nearly two dozen American embassies and consulates and waging an intense drone campaign in Yemen that consisted of eight strikes in the past two weeks.
In response to a question, the president discredited Snowden, saying, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot…The fact is, is that Mr. Snowden’s been charged with three felonies.”
But Obama had to acknowledge that Snowden influenced the administration’s current actions.
“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.”
In a recent Pew Research Center survey, half of Americans said they approve of government anti-terrorism programs that collect telephone and Internet data, while 44 percent disapprove. But for the first time since Pew Research began asking the question in 2004, three years after 9/11, Americans expressed more concern about restrictions of civil liberties going too far than protection from terrorism.
Most surprisingly, there is now a bipartisan reaction on the issue, as 38 percent of both Democrats and Republicans felt that the government’s policies didn’t go far enough to protect Americans. In 2006, there was a 9-percentage point difference with Republicans far more likely to agree with that statement.
Obama said the U.S. “can and must be more transparent” about its snooping on phone and Internet data.
“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,” he told reporters. “It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence as well.”
The president unveiled four proposals aimed at reassuring the public:
- Reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which governs the program that collects telephone records.
- Declassify the legal rationale for the government’s phone-data collection and put install a “civil liberties and privacy officer” at the National Security Agency to monitor the program.
- Appoint a lawyer to argue against the government at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is accused of essentially rubber-stamping official requests to scour electronic records.
- Form a group of external experts to review all U.S. government intelligence and communications technologies.
“Now, keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he said.
But now that he sits in the Oval Office, he sees things differently.
In explaining that he understands the perspective of Americans, the president used what NPR called “one of the stranger metaphors he’s used in some time,” invoking the first lady and household chores.
“If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes — now, granted, in the White House, I don’t do the dishes that much, but back in the day and she’s a little skeptical, well, I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it,” he said.
But the president’s comments offered nothing that will substantially change the NSA’s ongoing mass collection of phone data and surveillance of Internet communications. At one point he said the aim was to “jigger slightly” the balance between the intelligence and “the incremental encroachment on privacy.”
Democratic senator Ron Wyden, a leading critic of the NSA’s bulk surveillance powers in the Senate, said he welcomed Obama’s proposals, but he called for greater detail.
“Notably absent from President Obama’s speech was any mention of closing the backdoor searches loophole that potentially allows for the warrantless searches of Americans’ phone calls and emails under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” Wyden said.
Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed the president’s expressed position.
“The intelligence agencies say you can’t point to instances of abused authority,” he said. “The fact that the government is collecting all this information is itself a form of abuse. But even if you take their narrow definition of abuse, we don’t have the information to evaluate that. It’s all secret.”
Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has defended the NSA, said the review announced by the president would be the “primary order of business” for the committee after the summer.
“To the extent possible, I hope these hearings will better delineate the purpose and scope of these programs and increase the public’s confidence in their effectiveness,” she said.
During his remarks, the president also criticized Russia, which recently granted asylum to Snowden. Earlier in the week Obama canceled a planned summit with President Vladimir Putin next month in Moscow.
Obama said there had been more anti-American rhetoric since Putin returned to the Russian presidency, which “played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest.”
“I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success,” said Obama.
He said during his public interaction with Putin, the Russian leader “has got that kind of slouch, looking like he’s the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But Obama said their discussions in private had been constructive.