Snowden revelations force Obama’s hand on surveillance program
Chuck Todd, Kelly O'Donnell and Carrie Dann, NBC News
NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations have forced President Obama’s hand, leading the president to announce new reforms aimed at the government’s classified surveillance programs, according to White House and Congressional sources.
The reforms are aimed creating greater transparency and restoring public confidence in the program the sources said.
After his administration issued repeated defenses of a National Security Agency monitoring program that collects Americans’ phone and Internet data, the president Friday is expected to indicate that more needs to be done to ease concerns and prevent abuse of the agency’s far-reaching intelligence collection abilities.
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The reforms, which Obama will announce at a White House press conference this afternoon, come even as Snowden -- the defense-contractor-turned-fugitive who released information to reporters about the NSA’s monitoring programs -- has been charged with theft of government property and two offenses under U.S. espionage law. He continues to evade extradition to the United States under a temporary asylum granted by the Russian government – an agreement that prompted Obama to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in protest.
Snowden has generated strong feelings in the wake of disclosures, with many lawmakers decrying him as treasonous for releasing the information while others have used the case to press their concerns about how the government is watching American citizens.
While the president has declined 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 aides say will establish additional layers of oversight to reign in possible abuses of the NSA practices.
Obama defended the existing program as recently as Tuesday, stating flatly during an interview with comedian Jay Leno that “we don’t have a domestic spying program.”
“But,” he added, “what I've said before I want to make sure I repeat, and that is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy. None of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers.”
Aides say that while the president has confidence in the NSA’s system, it’s important that the public shares that confidence.
And, at the moment, polling shows that’s not the case.
A NBC/WSJ poll last month showed that 56 percent of Americans say they're worried the United States will go too far in violating privacy rights. That’s a dramatic shift from the national environment after the 9/11 terror attacks, when 55 percent of Americans said they worried that the United States would not go far enough in monitoring potential terrorists who live in the United States.
That poll also showed that only 11 percent of Americans said they viewed Edward Snowden positively, versus 35 percent who said they viewed him negatively.
On Tuesday, Obama declined to comment at length on Snowden’s status, saying it’s important not to “prejudge” the case. But the president said that existing whistleblower protections could have offered Snowden an avenue to report what he believed were inappropriate uses of Americans’ data without jeopardizing national security.
“You can come forward, come to the appropriate individuals and say, look, I’ve got a problem with what’s going on here, I’m not sure whether it’s being done properly,” he said. “If, in fact, the allegations are true, then [Snowden] didn’t do that. And that is a huge problem because a lot of what we do depends on terrorists networks not knowing that, in fact, we may be able to access their information.”
But regardless of how Obama, the public or the law view the 30 year old former contractor, Snowden continues to be problematic for the State Department and the rest of the Obama administration.
His asylum in Russia demonstrated the fraying relationship between the United States and Putin’s government, and it remains unclear whether he will release more information that intelligence officials would consider a setback to anti-terrorism efforts.