Edward Snowden, patriot

President Obama's news conference today was ... weird.

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."

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is pictured during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong June 9, 2013. (REUTERS/Ewen MacAskill/The Guardian)
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden is pictured during an interview with the Guardian in his hotel room in Hong Kong on June 9, 2013. (Ewen MacAskill/The Guardian via Reuters)

Obama began the news conference by announcing a series of reforms meant to increase the transparency of, and the constraints on, the National Security Agency's surveillance programs. They included reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enables the collection of telephone metadata; changes to the powerful surveillance courts to ensure "that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary"; declassification of key NSA documents; and the formation of "a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies."

"What makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation," Obama said. "It’s the way we do it, with open debate and democratic process."

If that's so, then Edward Snowden should be hailed as a hero. There's simply no doubt that his leaks led to more open debate and more democratic process than would've existed otherwise.

Obama reluctantly admitted as much. "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," he said, though he also argued that absent Snowden, "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."

As Tim Lee writes, this is dubious at best. Prior to Snowden's remarks, there was little public debate — in part because the federal government was preventing it.

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.

That was the state of the debate prior to Snowden: The Director of National Intelligence went before Congress, was given an opportunity to give the American people a clear and balanced picture on some of these programs, and basically lied. And no one from the Obama administration came out that day, or the next day, or the next week, to correct the record. It was only after Snowden's leak that Clapper apologized.

Obama allowed that "those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live up to our highest ideals." But most all of those people would say Snowden strengthened their hand immeasurably.

Obama's frustration with Snowden is that he interrupted what could have been "a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful, fact-based debate." The White House believes Snowden's leaks — and the drip-drip-drip way the Guardian released them — left the public misinformed. And at times, that's certainly true. The initial reports on PRISM, for instance, clearly suggested that the program was wider in scope than it actually is.

But the White House could have led that thoughtful, fact-based debate, and despite Obama's protestations to the contrary, they didn't. They prevented it. If this conversation, and these reforms, are as positive for the country as Obama says they are, then it's hard to escape the conclusion that Snowden did the country a real service — even if the White House can't abide crediting him with it.

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Neil Irwin · August 9, 2013