Obama Is Starting to Understand Why People Are So Upset About NSA Spying

"No, Mr. Snowden was not a patriot," the president said, but announced four new steps intended to quell concerns.
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Reuters

During a Friday afternoon press conference in the dead of summer, President Obama announced major proposals to change how his administration carries out national-security policy. The president laid out four goals:

  1. Reform the Patriot Act program that collects telephone programs.
  2. Work with Congress to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to introduce an "independent voice" that would "make sure the government's position is challenged by an adversary."
  3. Increase transparency. The Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the collection of data. A website will also be created as "a hub" for further transparency.
  4. A "high-level group of outside experts" will be formed for "new thinking, for a new era." The independent group will be asked to review surveillance technologies, to ensure there is no abuse and find how the programs can maintain the trust of the public.

In his announcement, he said "it's not enough for me, as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well."

The president's announcement also gives a new spin to Edward Snowden's budding legacy. Over the past few weeks, most of the headline-grabbing news around this story have been about Snowden's personal drama. Now, though, it's looking like Snowden's leaks (and the original reporting surrounding it) could result in real changes to the way the United States conducts national-security policy. For a while there, it was starting to seem like Snowden had blown his chance of actually bringing change to the policies he told the world about. After today, that door has been reopened, however slightly.

For his part, the president was clear on how he feels about Edward Snowden. "No," he said today, "I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot." The president added that without Snowden, he feels that a review of the current NSA programs "would have gotten to the same place."

Don't necessarily bet on serious, quick reform though. Task forces like the one laid out today don't have a huge history of recent success. Just look at Joe Biden's gun task force, announced by President Obama following the shooting in Newtown last year. "This won't be some Washington commission" that goes nowhere, Obama said in December. The task force issued recommendations in January. And aside from a failed Senate amendment, it has not resulted in any tangible change.

What He's Said Before
On June 7, the president first addressed the Snowden leak in a press conference. At the time, he was largely defensive of the NSA's spying program, reassuring reporters that a system of checks and balances — however secret — was in place.

"In the abstract, you can complain about 'Big Brother' and how this is a potential program run amok," he said, "but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance." He also said that while when he was a candidate he was skeptical of these programs, seeing them in action assured him of their importance.

Then, a week and a half later on PBS, President Obama again stressed that the NSA programs are overseen by all three branches of government (again, albeit in a secret manner). When asked by Charlie Rose if the programs should be more transparent, the president responded, "It is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court." The FISA court, of course, is no beacon of transparency itself.

But while the president pointed toward the system's policy safeguards, the leaker Snowden shot them down. On the same day the president appeared on PBS, Snowden wrote at The Guardian that those systematic safeguards can be easily hurdled. "The restrictions," he wrote answering a reader question about phone data, "against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time. Additionally, audits are cursory, incomplete, and easily fooled by fake justifications."

Today, the president said that while the programs are justified and work, he does recognize why people may feel anxious about them. "It's true we have significant capabilities but it's also true we show a restraint," he said. He also said he was wrong in assuming that the congressional and judicial safeguards would be enough to placate people's concerns. "That assumption proved to be undermined by what happened after the leaks," he said.

More Changes at the NSA
Today's announcement by the president isn't the only potential big change coming to the NSA. On Thursday, NSA Director Keith Alexander said that the agency is currently in the process of "reducing our system administrators by about 90 percent." Snowden, as a contractor, was one of the roughly 1,000 system administrators at the agency, a position which gave him access to the highly sensitive information he later leaked. In his first interview with The Guardian, Snowden's most eyebrow-raising claim was this: "I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president if I had a personal email."

Alexander said that moving away from human administrators would make NSA networks "more defensible and more secure," although the NSA says that the reforms have been underway since before Snowden's leaks.

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Matt Berman & Brian Resnick

Matt Berman and Brian Resnick are staff writers at National Journal.

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