President Barack Obama claimed in his end-of-the-year press conference on Friday that he will consider his NSA review board's suggestions for limited reforms—a development that many say reflects the shift in public debate sparked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Yet, Obama refused to touch the topic of amnesty for Snowden, claiming that public discussion of government spying could have occurred without his revelations, and continuing his vigorous defense of the unpopular mass surveillance programs.
“The president said that we could have had this important debate without Snowden, but no one seriously believes we would have," said Ben Wizner, Snowden's attorney, in an interview with The Guardian: "And now that a federal court and the president’s own review panel have agreed that the NSA’s activities are illegal and unwise, we should be thanking Snowden, not prosecuting him.”
Saying he will not make a final decision until January, Obama indicated he will consider halting the widely criticized NSA practice of mass collecting data on nearly every phone call made to and within the United States. Yet, he suggested that he might require private phone companies to collect the data instead.
Obama directly referenced Snowden's whistleblowing in what some are calling his strongest comments yet on bulk phone spying. “In light of the disclosures, it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse,” stated Obama. “If it that’s the case, there may be a better way of skinning the cat.”
However, this did not stop Obama from vigorously defending NSA spying. "There have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data," he said.
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Yet, as the Christian Science Monitor points out, this claim "appeared to run counter to FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court documents released in September. They included a harshly worded court opinion in which a federal judge berated the NSA for failing to conduct phone record searches in accord with legal guidelines meant to protect Americans’ privacy and for misleading the court that agency searches complied with those guidelines."
Obama acknowledged a loss of public trust and stated "the environment has changed" in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of the shift in debate sparked by Snowden. Yet, he refused to discuss the topic of amnesty for Snowden, stating that the "important and necessary debate" could have happened without him and charging that Snowden's disclosures caused "unnecessary damage" to the United States.
Yet many insist that Snowden is the hero, not the villain, behind the ongoing NSA spying scandal. "We continue to believe that Edward Snowden should be applauded, not prosecuted, for initiating this historic debate about surveillance and privacy," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a Friday statement. "Revisions to the NSA’s sweeping surveillance authorities are necessary and a long time coming."
"We welcome the willingness of the president to consider ending the government’s bulk collection of Americans’ call records," he added. "Many other reforms are necessary to bring these programs in line with the Constitution, including the passage of the USA Freedom Act."
Obama's statements come just days after U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon dealt the biggest legal blow yet to the NSA by ruling that bulk telephone data spying "likely" constitutes a violation of the constitution, with no evidence that it keeps anyone safe. “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval," he wrote in a 68-page statement.