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Snowden leaks force Obama’s hand

Without the former NSA contractor's leaks to the press, President Obama would likely not have to rein in government surveillance before he was ready--and that's a good thing.
/ Source: MSNBC TV

Without the former NSA contractor's leaks to the press, President Obama would likely not have to rein in government surveillance before he was ready--and that's a good thing.

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong in this illustration photo June 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)

President Obama could not deny the role Edward Snowden’s leaks to reporters eight weeks ago played in his administration’s plans to reform and increase the transparency of the National Security Agency. In a press conference announcing the changes, Obama acknowledged the former NSA contractor’s role, saying, “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 to go through, and I had sat down with Congress.”

No matter what the president thinks about the 30-year-old’s patriotism or his decision to seek asylum in Russia, after the leaks Americans want to know more about what the government is doing in the name of national security. And there would be no policy proposal, or Congressional legislation to criticize, without Snowden. “Public disclosure of this information is critical because it’s the only way our representatives can know how we feel about these programs,” Mike German, the ACLU’s Senior Policy Counsel told MSNBC. And we still need to know more. “Unless we understand how they all work together, I don’t think effective reform can be possible,” he said.

Fears over government surveillance have turned out to be one of the few issues to create strong bipartisan momentum for change; there have been several bills that would reform the FISA courts and limit data collection proposed in the Senate, but even the House came close to passing a bill that would have stopped the NSA from bulk collection of phone records. Unlike many of President Obama’s other policy goals, there is legislative will to rein in executive power.

Obama’s track record on conducting the sort of “lawful, orderly” process he described is questionable at best. Many civil liberties groups greeted Friday’s announcements with more skepticism than they did the president’s May 23 national security speech. That apprehension is due in part because there were so few specifics in Obama’s speech and because there has been little to no progress on reforming the administration’s drone policy or on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. While meeting with critics and supporters of the NSA programs and creating a task force to offer recommendations by the end of the year could lead to a dead end, it took barely two months—compared to four years for action on Guantanamo Bay—to force the president to start making promises the public must now evaluate.

While many government secrets have come to light through leaks, from the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, to the CIA’s brutal interrogation methods and former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee’s “torture memo,” the The NSA’s long history of intense secrecy and the broad powers claimed by the executive branch after September 11, 2001 set the stage for Snowden’s leaks to have an outsized impact.

“The administration has revealed more information about the NSA’s working since the Snowden disclosure than we have seen for decades, but they only did it because their hand was forced,” Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, told MSNBC. “We still haven’t seen enough.”

Even if Obama immediately begins releasing FISA court rulings and Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying NSA activities, while introducing civil liberties and privacy advocacy in the process, Goitein says, “this agency is so secretive that you can have a significant increase in transparency into the agency’s workings and still not have anywhere near enough as we need as a democracy to govern ourselves.”