The Obama Administration and NSA Reforms

I don’t have too much to say about the president’s recent speech other than to note that it leaves in place the essentials of the current surveillance program, which the National Security Agency ought to be happy about. Some news is made in the president’s announcement that the NSA will no longer be holding bulk metadata, but there is no indication from the president as to which entity will take control of that metadata once the NSA relinquishes control of it.

Concerning a certain other issue, I pretty much ally myself with the following comments by John Bellinger:

. . . In a speech that was otherwise reasonably balanced and appropriate in tone and substance, the one striking omission was a clear statement by President Obama about the damage to our national security caused by Snowden’s disclosures and a similarly emphatic statement that those who take it upon themselves to disclose our nation’s intelligence, diplomatic, and military secrets (like Snowden or Bradley Manning) should be condemned, not lauded.  A forceful statement by the President would help to prevent future damaging disclosures by self-appointed whistleblowers.

[. . .]

I can certainly understand why the President would want to make only glancing reference to Edward Snowden.  The President should not stoop to feed Snowden’s sense of self-importance by focusing on him personally.  (In an excellent recent op-ed entitled “Edward Snowden, the insufferable whistleblower”, the Washington Post’s otherwise generally politically liberal Ruth Marcus called Snowden “smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, overwrought.”)  Moreover, given the open criminal investigation, the President would not want specifically to label Snowden as a criminal or a traitor.

But, without focusing on Snowden as a person, the President should have used  the bully pulpit of a major Presidential address to speak more clearly about the consequences and implications of Snowden’s actions.  Unlike the British intelligence chiefs, who in testimony before Parliament last November said that Snowden’s leaks have been “very damaging” and have “put our operations at risk,” the President did not directly assess the damage caused by Snowden.   And even if there were legal reasons not to do so, each of his other statements seems very carefully hedged.   He says our “nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those trusted with our nation’s secrets.”   He conditionally says “if any individual who objects to government policy….”   He further says that the disclosures reveal methods that “could impact our operations in ways that we might not fully understand.”

I certainly hope that the President’s brief and half-hearted statements were not motivated by any political desire not to offend those who share the view of the New York Times editorial board that Snowden is a hero.

About the biggest difference between myself and Bellinger is that I don’t even make a pretense of calling Edward Snowden a whistleblower. To repeat what I have written many a time, Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower. (Of course, there is no dearth of arguments pointing out that Snowden does not qualify for whistleblower status.) Regarding Snowden’s proper classification, see Robert Gates.