President Obama on Friday disputed claims that former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden had blown the whistle on wrongdoing, suggesting that under a White House order he could have raised his concerns about the government’s sweeping cyber spying programs through official channels without fear of reprisal.
“If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community for the first time,” Obama said at a press conference.
But the president’s protective order, issued after Congress twice dropped intelligence workers from legislation to strengthen whistleblower protection, specifically excluded intelligence contractors like Snowden.
The 30-year-old was charged with espionage and is now a fugitive living in Russia, receiving a one-year visa after weeks of living in the transit area of a Moscow airport. Russian President Vladimir Putin has refused White House demands to send him back to the U.S.
The Snowden affair was one factor in the U.S. decision to cancel an upcoming summit between Obama and Putin.
At his press conference, the president also announced a series of reforms in oversight of U.S. surveillance efforts, promising greater oversight through the White House’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
In addition, he said he would seek other safeguards against abuse of the programs, in part by creating a public advocate to challenge the government’s requests for access to communications and records before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in secret.
The president insisted that the reforms were in the works before Snowden handed over a trove of electronic copies of top-secret documents to the Guardian newspaper in Britain in May, gathered while he was working for the NSA in Hawaii.
“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said.
Obama did concede, however, that “there’s no doubt 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.”
The president insisted that the government’s gathering of data on U.S. communications had not led to abuses, and called fears that the U.S. was becoming a surveillance state overblown.
If an “ordinary person” started reading “a bunch of headlines saying, U.S., Big Brother, looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably people would be concerned,” Obama told reporters. “I would be too if I wasn’t inside the government.”
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