The White House does what it can to make the president seem like a relatable, have-a-beer kind of guy. He visits late-night talk shows—just like your favorite celebrities! He has an adorable dog—just like you! He drops into sports bars and fills out an NCAA bracket—just like that one guy at the office!
But when the topic of Edward Snowden comes up, President Obama talks like he’s at the summit of Olympus, uninterested in mortals. It’s not a very convincing act. In June, he scoffed at the idea of “scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” Snowden was actually 30, and within a week a U.S. ally would ground a plane because of a rumor Snowden had boarded it. At Friday’s press conference, at which Obama discussed potential changes to America’s surveillance programs, NBC News’ Chuck Todd asked the president whether Snowden was a “patriot,” and he scoffed again.
“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” he said. “I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. … Mr. Snowden’s been charged with three felonies [and] if in fact he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.”
“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’d sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through—it would have been less exciting and it would not have generated as much press. I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country,” Obama said.
Well, yes, that’s true. Congress is brimming with reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court and Section 215 of the Patriot Act that had stalled out without the impetus of a new surveillance scandal. Far from acting as a distracting soap opera (though it felt like that, at times), the Snowden story really did pique interest in reform bills.
The president’s mission, as set out on Friday, is to take credit for all the reforms that sound the best, and to re-establish the government as a trusted actor without doing much that’s new. In that May speech at the National Defense University, Obama committed to “a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension.” On Friday, he said that he’d “asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension.” Created in 2004, on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the board was effectively powerless until three months ago, when it finally got a chairman, and the president’s still bland when it comes to its goals.
Blandness serves a purpose. The White House’s plans for a website that will “serve as the hub for further transparency” are obviously silly, and the most concrete plan denoted in the press conference may not have a real impact. “One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story,” Obama said. “We can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice, in appropriate cases, by ensuring that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary.” He was referring obliquelyto a Democratic bill that would create a “public advocate” in the FISA court. Civil libertarians wonder if that would truly add more accountability to the process, or whether it would become yet another surveillance rubber stamp.
At least they’ve got the White House talking. Six weeks ago, the National Security Agency story was discussed as one of a “hat trick” of scandals. The other stories bugging the administration were investigations into the aftermath of the Benghazi, Libya, attack and into the Internal Revenue Service’s irritating questions to conservative groups. Benghazi was mentioned once in Friday’s press conference; the IRS wasn’t mentioned at all. The questioning remained broad and big picture, apart from the focus on Snowden.
That made for a contradictory call-and-response. On domestic matters, the president got to talk about his clout and the Republicans’ lack thereof. When asked what “political leverage” he had to get an immigration bill signed, he said he was “absolutely confident that if that bill was on the floor of the House, it would pass.” Asked about the coming appointment of a Federal Reserve chairman, he promised a nominee who believed in full employment. “A big part of my job right now is to make sure the economy’s growing quickly and robustly and is sustained and durable so that people who work hard in this country are able to find a job,” he said.
Surveillance policy is “part of his job,” too. It reveals the range of his powers and the limits of his control. No reporter asked the president about another angle of the story: the Drug Enforcement Administration getting tips from the NSA and using them for investigations. Today, Snowden’s the human problem that the White House can’t control. Tomorrow, it’ll be someone else.
David Weigel writes for Slate.