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.