Obama's 'Snowden reform' of NSA spying won't help Edward Snowden

U.S. President Barack Obama took a big step Tuesday toward curbing some of the excesses of America's electronic spying. But his administration still wants to charge Edward Snowden, the man who brought these to light, with espionage.

President curbs metadata gathering, but still wants to charge whistleblower Snowden

'I think the fears about our privacy in this age of internet and big data are justified,' U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters in The Hague yesterday.

Try to find some logic here, if you can.

Most Americans disapprove of the blanket electronic eavesdropping carried out by the vast apparatus of U.S. security organs. It is, they tell pollsters, an infringement of their privacy and liberty.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama sympathized: "I think the fears about our privacy in this age of internet and big data are justified," he told reporters in The Hague.

At the same time, polls suggest Americans overwhelmingly believe that Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed that electronic spying, is a traitor who harmed his country.

Obama's officials wholeheartedly concur with that view. In fact, they want Snowden returned from his Russian asylum in chains.

Only one conclusion can sensibly be drawn from such profoundly contradictory attitudes: Americans, like most other people perhaps, prefer contented ignorance to uncomfortable truth.

It is now pretty clear that Snowden, far from being an enemy of his country, sacrificed his future to tell his fellow Americans that their government's secretive National Security Agency has for years been scooping up all the records of every email and cellphone call they make.

It is also clear, as Obama acknowledged Tuesday, that had it not been for Snowden, his administration would not be supporting legislation that would put an end to that program.


The U.S. president now recognizes that the "metadata" program was wrong; or at the very least that it should not have been kept secret from the public.

Actually, it wasn't just kept secret; no less an administration figure than the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress about its existence last March.

Since then, at least one federal judge has ruled the program is an unconstitutional violation of Americans' privacy.

Obama's statement Tuesday in The Netherlands:

'With respect to some of the aspects of data collection, what I've been very clear about is that there has to be a narrow purpose to it, not a broad-based purpose, but it's rather based on a specific concern around terrorism or counter-proliferation or human trafficking or something that I think all of us would say has to be pursued.

And, so what I've tried to do, then, is to make sure that my intelligence teams are consulting very closely at each stage with their counterparts in other nations, so that there's greater transparency in terms of what exactly we're doing, what we're not doing.

Some of the reporting here in Europe as well as the United States, frankly, has been pretty sensationalized. I think the fears about our privacy in this age of the Internet and big data are justified. I think the actual facts people would have an assurance that if you are just the ordinary citizen in any of these countries, that your privacy in fact is not being invaded on.

But I recognize that because of these revelations, that there's a process that's taking place where we have to win back the trust not just of governments, but more importantly, of ordinary citizens. And that's not going to happen overnight, because I think that there's a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical in particular of U.S. intelligence services.'

Another judge, a member of the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, has ordered the White House to declassify more of its rulings about the metadata program, citing Snowden's impact on public awareness of its operations.

Nonetheless, and despite the fact that Snowden didn't profit from his revelations (to the contrary, he left behind his life and a lucrative job with an NSA contractor in Hawaii), the administration has charged him with espionage.

That's roughly the same treatment given Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, Russia's two ex-moles who, for profit, did decades of damage to America from their jobs inside the FBI and CIA.

As Coleen Rowley, a former FBI special agent and whistleblower herself, pointed out at a news conference yesterday, timed to coincide with the announcement of Obama's intelligence reforms, it's crazy to even loosely compare Snowden with traitors of Hanssen's and Ames's stature.

"It's extremely incongruent to be fixing what's wrong, and to say that the person who made this possible, whose disclosures led to public awareness … is somehow to blame, and is a problem.

"It doesn't make any sense at all."

Congruence and logic

Congruence and logic, though, don't matter where official secrets are concerned.

Secret bureaucrats operate in a world of fungible morality. To them, leaks like Snowden's, even if they reveal law breaking, are treason.

Like the revelations of CIA agents torturing detainees in secret offshore prisons. Or the revelations of warrantless wiretapping by the Bush administration.

That such practices are almost always abandoned when caught in the antiseptic light of publicity makes no difference.

Nor does the inability of intelligence officials to cite examples in which their flagrant abuses actually prevented a violent act.

(As Rowley noted yesterday, two of the most famous acts of terror here, the so-called underwear bomber on Northwest Airlines and the attempt to bomb Times Square in 2010, were thwarted not by powerful intelligence organizations, but by vigilant members of the public.)

The spymasters, however, remain defiant: Whatever we do, we do for the public good, they say. To question them is unpatriotic. To expose them is a crime.

Incidentally, as Snowden has also informed us, Canada's electronic spies at the Communications Security Establishment have for years run a metadata program, too, basically operating as a subsidiary of the NSA.

Now that the U.S. president has acknowledged that the all-encompassing breadth of the American program was wrong, and is introducing a law to curb the NSA, we asked the government in Ottawa whether it plans any similar changes.

"From terrorism to kidnapping to cyber-attacks, CSEC plays an important role in the government's efforts to address and combat such threats," read the rather non-responsive response from Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's spokesman.

"CSEC is prohibited by law from targeting Canadians or anyone in Canada under its foreign intelligence and cyber-protection mandates. An independent watchdog reviews all of this organization's activities and has never found CSEC to have acted unlawfully."

That of course is more or less the same position the Obama administration had consistently taken on the NSA. The difference, of course, is that the American public showed its disapproval, and the American government listened.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.


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