On Friday, President Obama held a press conference at which he said that those who have questioned government’s spying on its own citizens in the name of privacy and civil liberties are “patriots” and at which he announced supposedly-sweeping reviews of that surveillance program. Among other measures, he ordered an overhaul of procedures of the secret court that permits the government surveillance and an inquiry into surveillance criteria by an independent panel of experts.
And Obama was careful to state at the start that all this had begun back in May, when he made a speech at the National Defense University.
I.e., before Edward Snowden bolted to Hong Kong and made his releases to the Guardian, in June.
Throughout the press conference, you could sense the competition that Obama feels with the man he repeatedly called “Mr. Snowden” (even as he called Putin Putin). Because “Mr. Snowden” has led the discussion. Mr. Snowden had courage. Mr. Snowden wanted a conversation that the president claims he also wanted.
Obama mentioned Mr. Snowden seven times, granting him prestige, which he of course deserves. I think Obama is jealous.
Here are the references to Snowden during the press conference. Go to the link for full context:
Q. Also will there be any additional punitive measures taken against Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden?
THE PRESIDENT:…. Keep in mind that our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden. It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved. And so we don’t consider that strictly punitive.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Given that you just announced a whole bunch of reforms based on essentially the leaks that Edward Snowden made on all of these surveillance programs, is that change — is your mindset changed about him? Is he now more a whistle-blower than he is a hacker, as you called him at one point, or somebody that shouldn’t be filed charges? And should he be provided more protection? Is he a patriot? You just used those words.
Obama: No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. 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 has 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 whistleblower protection to the intelligence community — for the first time. So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions….
And 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 had sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through. It would have been less exciting. It would not have generated as much press. 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.
Carol Lee [WSJ]: I wanted to ask you about your evolution on the surveillance issues. I mean, part of what you’re talking about today is restoring the public trust. And the public has seen you evolve from when you were in the U.S. Senate to now. And even as recently as June, you said that the process was such that people should be comfortable with it, and now you’re saying you’re making these reforms and people should be comfortable with those. So why should the public trust you on this issue, and why did you change your position multiple times?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it’s important to say, Carol, first of all, I haven’t evolved in my assessment of the actual programs. I consistently have said that when I came into office I evaluated them. Some of these programs I had been critical of when I was in the Senate. When I looked through specifically what was being done, my determination was that the two programs in particular that had been at issue, 215 and 702, offered valuable intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they’re worth preserving. What we also saw was that some bolts needed to be tightened up on some of the programs, so we initiated some additional oversight, reforms, compliance officers, audits and so forth.
And if you look at the reports — even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward — all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails. What you’re hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they’re not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.
Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn’t inside the government.
And so in light of the changed environment where a whole set of questions have been raised, some in the most sensationalized manner possible, where these leaks are released drip by drip, one a week, to kind of maximize attention and see if they can catch us at some imprecision on something — in light of that, it makes sense for us to go ahead, lay out what exactly we’re doing, have a discussion with Congress, have a discussion with industry — which is also impacted by this — have a discussion with civil libertarians, and see can we do this better.
I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people at the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. And we’ve tried to set up a system that is as failsafe as so far at least we’ve been able to think of to make sure that these programs are not abused.