The president is wrong: The NSA debate wouldn’t have happened without Snowden

August 9, 2013
(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
(Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

At Friday's news conference, President Obama was asked by Chuck Todd whether the debate that has arisen in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations made Snowden a patriot. Obama disagreed.

"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."

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.

Whether or not Snowden is a patriot, it's clear that his disclosures made possible a more vigorous and well-informed public debate about the NSA's programs than would have happened otherwise.

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