Although he refused to "dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations," President Obama said today that "the work has begun" in addressing the concern for civil liberties the former government contractor's massive NSA leaks stirred up.
In a major address at the Justice Department, Obama positioned himself firmly in the middle of the debate kicked off by Snowden while also elevating himself above it. "Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in a repeat of 9/11, and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties," he said. "The challenge is getting the details right, and that's not simple."
By announcing overhauls to the NSA collection of metadata, proposing oversight for the secret court system, and agreeing not to spy on our international allies too much, the president took steps to begin responding to months of criticism. But he also insisted, "We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications."
Despite his appearance today and the changes announced having stemmed directly from Snowden's disclosures, Obama maintained a skepticism about the leaks. "I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets," he said. "If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy. Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come."
At the same time, "in our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach — the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security — became more pronounced" since September 11, he said. "Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect. For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached."
Still, government agencies are "not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls, or read your emails," Obama said. "When mistakes are made — which is inevitable in any large and complicated human enterprise — they correct those mistakes." Examining the reach of these programs has been ongoing, he added, before and after Snowden: "Nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens."
That said, the plan is to move toward new safeguards, just in case. "One thing I'm certain of: this debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead," said Obama. "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity."