Story highlights

Julian Assange says the world owes Edward Snowden a debt of gratitude

"Reforms are taking shape," Assange said in a statement released Saturday

President Obama has rejected characterizations of Snowden as a whistle-blower

Snowden, who has temporary asylum in Russia, faces felony charges in the U.S.

(CNN) —  

President Barack Obama’s plan to review U.S. surveillance programs has validated fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s role as a whistle-blower, the head of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said Saturday.

The statement came a day after Obama outlined steps to reform intelligence gathering measures, saying the classified leaks by Snowden created a public distrust in programs meant to safeguard Americans.

“As Snowden has stated, his biggest concern was if he blew the whistle and change did not occur,” Julian Assange said in a written statement.

“Well, reforms are taking shape, and for that, the president and people of the United States and around the world owe Edward Snowden a debt of gratitude.”

Obama has refused any characterization of Snowden as a “whistle-blower” or “patriot,” telling reporters there were “other avenues” the former National Security Agency contractor could have taken instead of leaking national security surveillance information.

The president said Snowden’s leaks came in “dribs and drabs,” giving a false general impression that “we are somehow out there willy-nilly sucking information from everybody.”

At the same time, Obama sought to assure the public that there are safeguards in place, while acknowledging the need for transparency.

Among the steps being taken, according to the president: Working with Congress to pursue appropriate improvements of the telephone data program; reforming the secret court that approves that initiative; improving transparency to provide as much information as possible to the public, including the legal rationale for government collection activities; and appointing a high-level, independent group of outside experts to review surveillance technologies.

Snowden stepped forward publicly in June to claim responsibility for leaking to the media that the NSA had secretly collected and stored millions of phone records from accounts in the United States. The agency also collected information from U.S. companies on the Internet activity of overseas residents, he said.

Snowden fled first to China and then to Russia before Moscow granted him temporary asylum despite pressure from the Obama administration to return him to the United States to face charges.

He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, for the leaks.

If Snowden believes his actions were right, “he can appear before a court with a lawyer and make his case,” the president said.

Snowden and others have contended that he did America and the world a service by revealing information on secret programs, which they say wrongly impinge on people’s right to privacy in furtively giving too much information to the U.S. government.

“The simple fact is that without Snowden’s disclosures, no one would know about the programs and no reforms could take place,” Assange said.

Assange released the statement from Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he sought refuge to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning over alleged sex crimes.

CNN’s Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.