Does Barack Obama think we’re stupid?
That’s the only conclusion possible after watching Friday’s bravura performance, in which the president announced a set of proposals meant to bring more transparency to the NSA — and claimed he would have done it anyway, even if Edward Snowden, had never decided to leak thousands of highly sensitive documents to the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald.
But even as he grudgingly admitted that the timing, at least, of his suggestions was a consequence of Snowden’s actions, the president declared, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.” When you look at what has changed over the last two months, though, it’s hard not to wonder, “What could be more patriotic than what Snowden did?”
First, the results: More than a dozen bills have already been introduced to put a stop to the NSA’s mass phone-collection program and to overhaul the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has re-interpreted the Fourth Amendment in secret, creating a body of privacy law that the public has never read, A half-dozen new privacy lawsuits have been filed against the NSA. The Pentagon is undergoing an unprecedented secrecy audit. U.S. officials have been caught deceiving or lying to Congress. The list goes on.
These actions have been accompanied by a sea change in public opinion about surveillance. Poll after poll has shown that, for the first time ever, Americans think the government has gone too far in violating their privacy, with vast majorities believing the NSA scooping up a record of every phone call made in the United States invades citizens’ privacy.
While the administration certainly doesn’t believe Snowden is patriotic, Americans do. A Quinnipiac poll conducted this month found people agreed, 55 percent to 34 percent, that he was a whistleblower — a large margin that crossed party, gender, and age lines. A recent Reuters poll showed only 31 percent of the public thought he should be prosecuted.
Obama claimed in his press conference that Snowden stole his thunder, that he was one that tried to initiate a surveillance debate prior to Snowden’s leaks. But, he complained, “rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate but not always fully informed way.” That argument just doesn’t comport with reality.
In his speech in May on national security, the president did indeed announce a review of surveillance policy. What he failed to mention, though, was that the very same speech was spurred on by another leak — of the Justice Department white paper justifying drone strikes on Americans overseas. There’s been no change on transparency surrounding drone strikes since the speech, as Obama himself proved later in the press conference when he refused confirm a drone strike took place in Yemen this week (there were several).
The fact is, Obama has had years to initiate a debate about surveillance, but instead has actively stifled it. Although, as he acknowledged Friday, he was a huge critic of the Patriot Act as a senator, his administration actively opposed privacy and oversight amendments in 2011. Similarly, in December 2012, just eight months ago, the administration opposed all oversight fixes to the FISA Amendments Act. It passed unchanged with little debate.
The FISA Amendments Act is the law that, as the New York Times reported on its front page this week, the NSA has used to “search the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country.”