Obama vs. Snowden

Paul Jacob

8/11/2013 12:00:12 AM - Paul Jacob

Who is telling the truth: President Barack Obama or Edward Snowden?

When the middle-aged Mr. Snowden (now 30 years old) fled to Hong Kong and then on to Russia, having disclosed to The Washington Post and Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian of London a reported treasure trove of top-secret documents about the National Security Agency surveillance and data-mining programs, a fierce national (and worldwide) debate ensued.

President Obama has repeatedly said that he welcomes the discussion.

On the minor little manner of this “debate” itself, who is dealing in truth? No one has ever suggested the documents pilfered and made public by Snowden were inauthentic. And no one sound in mind thinks Obama honestly welcomed this debate.

Had the Great and Powerful O truly longed for such a public examination of his administration’s surveillance policies, one that now seems at least partly responsible for his lowest public approval ratings in a year, he would have begun that discussion. Nothing kept him from it. As a USA Today editorial plainly put it, “The only reason there’s a debate now is because it was started by a leaker.”

At a Friday news conference, Mr. Obama was forced to acknowledge that “a general impression has, I think, taken hold, not only among the American public but also around the world, that somehow we’re out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it.”

On that, the president reaches his highest level of veracity. But the president added, “Now, that’s not the case.”

From the first revelations from Mr. Snowden, our Commander-in-Chief has assured us that we, at least — that is, American citizens hanging out on U.S. soil — are not being targeted. Even if true, which is hard to verify given all the secrecy, several reports demonstrate the ease at which a person can be innocently swept up into a surveillance program.

Perhaps that’s justifiable collateral damage to Obama, but certainly “no one is listening to your telephone calls,” he assures. Only thing is, Edward Snowden says they are, or at the very least, they can be ever so easily, without meaningful oversight, without court authorization.

“Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that analyst is empowered with,” Snowden told Glenn Greenwald in a televised interview. “Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant, to a Federal judge, to even the President . . . if I had a personal e-mail.”

Both men cannot be correct.

President Obama was concerned enough about how you and the rest of the country (and the world) may be may be leaning on this volatile issue to address it at a news conference, and to lay out four steps he is taking to increase the “confidence” of the American people “in these [NSA surveillance] programs.” The first two steps are to “work with Congress” to (1) reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act, concerning the scooping up of all telephones records, and (2) to create some legal representation in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — “in appropriate cases” — for those with “civil liberties concerns.” Currently, only the federal government is represented in these secret court proceedings.

How much can confidence really be raised when it is predicated on the ability of Obama and Congress to work together?

But even should they manage to cooperate, let’s not pretend that the goal of such an endeavor would be to relinquish a quark of power or authority. The president offered excellent buzz words like “greater oversight, greater transparency,” but has every intention of continuing to obtain every American’s phone records and emails. And to continue a secret court making secret and sweeping decisions.

Obama’s third step, making public the heretofore secret legal rationale that so twists Section 215 of the Patriot Act as to permit the government’s metadata collection program, is both meaningful and requires no one else’s approval. And is long overdue.

But another decision may be made tomorrow . . . in secret.

The fourth announced step is classic Washington — almost as good as promising to cut spending by slashing “waste, fraud and abuse.” Mr. Obama is going to form “a high level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies.”

But why a new group? What about the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, “the group charged with ensuring that the executive branch balances privacy and civil liberties needs with its national security efforts”? The group the president never even met with until after Ed Snowden blew his skirling whistle.

“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said Friday in response to reporters. “As I said in my opening remarks, I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. My preference — and I think the American people’s preference — would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful, fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place, because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn’t require, potentially, some additional reforms. That’s exactly what I called for.”

Well, maybe he mumbled something to that effect to a dial tone. The NSA might have been listening.

“If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public,” he went on, “I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistle-blower protection to the intelligence community for the first time.”

Would Obama’s executive order have protected Snowden? Is this all really a big misunderstanding? Shouldn’t the president just meet with Snowden over a beer near the Moscow airport?

Were they to lack for small talk, Obama could explain how that executive order works.

Much of the chatter amongst the chat show set has been devoted to the question of Snowden’s possible heroism or villainy. Not enough has been directed to Obama’s similar standing, which seems to have all the ontological constancy of Schrödinger’s Cat.

And, of all the second-guessing of Snowden’s character as exhibited by the choices he made, not mentioned often enough has been the near blackout of media coverage in the Bradley Manning case — the most powerful context for any person seeking to tell the truth about an illegal and possibly unconstitutional program.

Were Snowden motivated by fame, he could certainly have done more to generate it and bask in it. If money had mattered most, he could have earned big bucks by trading information to hostile countries. Had he cared only about the good life and not right-and-wrong or the future of the country, he would have looked the other way. Instead, Snowden took great personal risk to disclose top-secret information in a somewhat careful manner.

Mr. Obama’s motivations don’t seem nearly so pure.     [further reading]