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Fact-checking Obama's claims about Snowden

By Z. Byron Wolf, CNN
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President suggested Americans would have been better off if they hadn't found out about NSA program
  • Snowden's father rejects Obama's suggestion that he would have been protected
  • Federal whistleblower protection doesn't appear to help someone in Snowden's case

Washington (CNN) -- If Edward Snowden's NSA leaks led to changes in government policy, increased civil liberties protections and sparked a national dialogue, does it stand to reason that Edward Snowden is more whistleblower and patriot than traitor?

We know where President Barack Obama stands.

Even as he announced changes to the NSA programs, including the appointment of an independent government review, at a news conference on Friday, Obama suggested Americans would be better off if they hadn't found out that the government collects vast amounts of phone and Internet data.

"No, I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said. A bit earlier he had argued that his administration was already in the process of reviewing the programs that most Americans didn't know existed.

The leaks, he said, hurt that process.

"I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks," Obama said. "My preference, and I think the American people's preference, would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place."

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Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, hasn't spoken up about the president's remarks, but his father did so on ABC News.

"Much of what he suggested is superficial," Lon Snowden said.

More specifically, he called the idea that Edward Snowden could have been protected as a whistleblower "absolutely untrue."

Snowden's father reacts to Obama statement

Lon Snowden appeared on ABC with his lawyer, Bruce Fein, who said the idea that congressional committees, which knew about the classified telephone and e-mail surveillance programs that Snowden disclosed through leaks to media, would have protected him as a whistleblower, is absurd.

"These were the committees that knew for seven years what was going on and refused to disclose it to the American people," said Fein. "The best was some cryptic statements if the American people knew what was going on they would be stunned. And Edward Snowden is supposed to go to them? That seems rather implausible because they were the ones who were responsible for the secrecy."

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Obama is clearly sensitive to the idea he might be overlooking civil liberties.

Snowden, the president argued, should have utilized the federal government's system for whistleblowers instead of leaking classified information. And the president offered his own support for whistleblower protections for government employees in the intelligence community as evidence that he and his administration want whistleblowers to come forward.

Those are two important points Obama has made: First, that he was already reviewing the programs and second, that Snowden should have stayed in the United States to make his case either as a whistleblower within the intelligence infrastructure or to Congress and also in court with a lawyer by his side. Here's a look at both of them:

Would Obama's whistleblower protection have helped Snowden?

Obama on Friday: "I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community for the first time."

True -- he signed an executive order in October of 2012 that protects intelligence community whistleblowers. The Intelligence community is exempted from other whistleblower protections he signed into law in 2012.

Read the executive order

But that protection does not appear to do much for someone like Snowden, who wanted to blow the whistle to public on a classified program.

The order states that classified information should be protected. It also adjudicates through the intelligence committee, which is already complicit and agrees with the program that he disclosed.

In other words, Snowden would have been protected in blowing the whistle up to the director of National Intelligence. Currently, that's James Clapper, who has had to apologize for misleading Congress about the existence of the programs.

In any case, he already knew about the programs. So that does seem like a bit of a Catch-22. But it is part of a larger debate about whether Americans trust their government to have secret programs. If so, they have to trust the branches of government to do the checking and balancing.

Intel chief admits 'erroneous statements' to Congress

What review of intelligence did Obama order in May?

Obama said Friday the intelligence programs at the NSA were already under review before Snowden's leaks. He pointed to a speech he gave in May at National Defense University as public proof.

That speech was given in the wake of the terror attack by two brothers, one an American citizen, on the Boston Marathon. It was more in line with strengthening capabilities of the intelligence community than it was an examination of civil liberties.

Obama did raise concerns about press freedoms from a separate instance where the Department of Justice had sought phone records of The Associated Press as it investigated a leak of classified information about a terror plot emanating from Yemen.

Perhaps the fact that the Department of Justice sought warrants for the data the government had apparently already collected is proof that government safeguards were working.

But there was no mention in that speech about reviewing the necessity of collecting mass amounts of data from Americans. Of course, nobody really knew at that point about the NSA programs.

Here's the relevant excerpt from that May speech:

"Thwarting homegrown plots presents particular challenges in part because of our proud commitment to civil liberties for all who call America home. That's why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse.

"That means that -- even after Boston -- we do not deport someone or throw somebody in prison in the absence of evidence. That means putting careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the state secrets doctrine. And that means finally having a strong Privacy and Civil Liberties Board to review those issues where our counterterrorism efforts and our values may come into tension."

Read Obama's full speech at National Defense University

The review Obama announced Friday -- charging an independent group within 60 days "to step back and review our capabilities, particularly our surveillance technologies." That seems more on point.

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