If only we had waited for that review board ...
The president held a press conference today and spoke of many things. But he opened his remarks with an announcement of coming investigations and a release of information about the NSA's secret spying apparatus. And while the President insisted that he had already been reforming the NSA so Snowden's revelations are irrelevant in the long run, the mainstream press, at least, doesn't seem convinced of that anymore.
Here's Tim Lee of the Washington Post:
“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” the president said. “I called for a thorough review of our operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. My preference, and I think the American peoples’ preferences would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws.”
Ezra Klein followed up on this with a similar takeaway, with the headline Edward Snowden, patriot. He opens with:
Yet the Obama administration showed little interest in subjecting the NSA to meaningful oversight and public debate prior to Snowden’s actions. When Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked for a “ballpark figure” of the number of Americans whose information was being collected by the NSA last year, the agency refused to give the senator any information, arguing that doing so would violate the privacy of those whose information was collected.
In March, at a Congressional hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper answered “no sir” when Wyden asked whether the NSA had collected “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.” We now know his statement was incorrect.
Wyden and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) had also been pressing for almost four years for access to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s legal opinions interpreting Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Until Snowden’s disclosures, the senators made no headway. Now, the Obama administration has announced it intends to release its legal interpretation of Section 215.
President Obama’s news conference today was … weird.
NBC's First Read:
Binyamin Appelbaum, an economics reporter for the New York Times, summed it up sharply on Twitter: “Obama is really mad at Edward Snowden for forcing us patriots to have this critically important conversation.”
Snowden revelations force Obama's hand on surveillance program
He seemed to have been saying today that Snowden's revelations ruined his plan to have an orderly investigation of the NSA programs even though there is no evidence that he was doing any such thing. Certainly, there is no evidence that there was any "plan" to inform the American people since the senators who were running around with their hair on fire were lied to right to their face in open testimony by the intelligence community.
[W]hile the president has declined in the past to say whether he considers Snowden a “whistleblower” as supporters of the alleged leaker claim, Snowden’s actions were at the very least a catalyst for the coming reforms, which he says will establish additional layers of oversight to reign in possible abuses of the NSA practices.
The president also claimed that he had signed an executive order that would have allowed Snowden to come forward without any fear of retaliation. But the executive order the president was apparently referring to doesn't even explicitly cover contractors
Though whistle-blower advocates have actually won increased protections in recent months, intelligence contractors have repeatedly been left out. Intelligence workers are not covered by the Whistle-blower Protection Act. When Congress passed the Whistle-blower Protection Enhancement Act last fall, at the request of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, the law’s protections didn’t apply to the intelligence community workers -- both contract and government employees. When Congress added whistle-blower protections specifically for contract employees to the National Defense Reauthorization Act of 2013, intelligence contractors were again excluded.
The idea that Snowden could have used this provision to jump start a debate is as fatuous as it gets. Wyden and Udall couldn't get this information out or convince the NSA to change its ways and they are US Senators! Why in the world would a lone contractor whistleblower believe he could get the NSA to change its policies much less inform the citizens of what it has been doing? And that's assuming he even knew how the presidential order was being secretly implemented.
To fill the void, President Obama issued Public Policy Directive (PPD) 19 in October 2012 to extend protections to national security workers. However, his directive made no mention of contractors. Because PPD-19 was initially classified and is actually being implemented in secret, advocates are unsure how strong the protections for government intelligence workers actually are. The directive made no mention of contract workers specifically and Canterbury said she would be “actually shocked and astounded” if the directive were interpreted to apply to contractors.
Besides, these words make it little more than one of the administration's more ludicrous symbolic gestures:
This directive is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
Not a lot of meat on those bones. Snowden would have been a total idiot to rely on that executive order. (The only other law protecting intelligence contractors would have required him to secretly talk to to Mike Rogers and Dianne Feinstein and let them handle it. See: Udall, Wyden, Rockefeller above for how that works.)
It's nonsense and everyone knows it. This great debate, which today resulted in a very public set of executive branch reforms and investigations would not have happened were it not for Edward Snowden. You do not have to call him a patriot --- perhaps you think these programs are great and you hope the government keeps up the good work. But he is most definitely a whistleblower in the most classic sense of the word.
And that whistleblower was undoubtedly very well aware of the fact that the Obama administration has been uniquely hostile the very idea of a free press informing the American public of what the government is doing in its name:
There is no evidence that President Obama was seriously engaged in systematic reforms of the NSA surveillance programs prior to now. He could have put a stop to much of it long before Edward Snowden came on the scene. And he sure as hell could have called a truce in the war on whistleblowers and the press. Instead, the DOJ has been pressing forward with everything it has against reporters like the NY Times' James Risen who has been harassed by the federal government since 2005.
The administration's actions speak louder than words, especially these words:
[T]here'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 -- it would have been less exciting and 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.
It's time for that trope to be retired. It's frankly reminiscent of the paternalistic bullhorn nonsense we had to put up with in the Bush administration. This is a democracy. We don't outsource our constitutional responsibilities.
This administration, like all the administrations before it since WWII, has fiercely guarded the prerogatives of the secret surveillance state and the Military Industrial Complex. It is the source of real presidential power and they are loathe to give up any of it until they are forced to do so by the people. This has been obvious for many decades and President Obama is no exception.