President Barack Obama on Friday seemed to acknowledge that the determined effort by the White House and Congress to demonize Edward Snowden has not exactly worked. The White House has put pressure on many people in this town to make clear that Snowden is not to be praised in the media or by members of Congress. Various reporters and new organizations have held the line in mocking Snowden or refusing to call him a “whistleblower” rather than a “leaker.” After all, the fear seems to be that Snowden has to be a traitor or Obama would look like a tyrant. Even high-ranking members have been frog walked back before cameras for uttering a work of praise for Snowden. The problem is that it has convinced few people, even with alteration of Wikipedia and other sites to maintain the party line. Now Obama has come forward to assure people that Snowden is no patriot. No, I guess that title belongs to Obama and others who have engaged in warrantless surveillance and continue to mislead the public on the erosion of privacy and civil liberties. Those patriotic souls include John Clapper who lie under oath to mislead the public about the programs. He is not a perjurer but a patriot in America’s New Animal Farm. Notably, however, not a single reporter asked Obama about the perjury by Clapper. Instead, Obama laid out another set of meaningless measures designed to lull the public back into a comfortably and controllable sleep.
Obama seems to be going through the stages of Kübler-Ross from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance. Last week, he was in denial and assuring the public that they are not being spied upon even as more stories appeared revealing even broader surveillance programs. He then attacked Snowden and now insists that he is no patriot for throwing away his life to disclose these massive surveillance programs. He ended the week with bargaining, telling the public that he would create a committee of hand-picked experts to review such surveillance — just like his committee ratifying his killing of citizens without charges or convictions.
Obama clearly wants to have unchecked power but not be thought of as authoritarian. He returned to the theme that he can create the due process and review within his own Administration that is obviously lacking in Congress or the courts. He went as far as to say that a simple committee of his making would have avoided the Snowden affair because the public would have accepted his word for the status of their rights and privacy. “There’s no doubt Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than if I had simply appointed this review board.” In other words, I messed up by not first creating a screen for the programs to give my allies cover. In the meantime, his Administration is moving to remove the greatest danger to their warrantless surveillance programs: people.
What was particularly galling was Obama’s statement that “[g]iven the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.” However, his administration has been classifying even legal argument to prevent such questions from being asked and has pursued both reporters and their sources for any stories informing the public. His Administration is the most anti-whistleblower government in modern history and has abused national security laws in the pursuit of leakers to an extent that would make Richard Nixon blush.
Obama added as one of his great reforms on Friday that he would consider making the legal rationales for these programs more public despite the view that such classification was always ridiculous. So he will make legal arguments public and appoint his own committee to review his own policies.
Finally, he got away with telling the media that Snowden is not a whistleblower because he had “other avenues” to oppose the programs. Maintaining a straight face (and again without serious challenge from the press corp), Obama noted that “he can appear before a court with a lawyer and make his case.” First, by that definition, no one would be a whistleblower since they could all take the suicidal act of filing a public complaint or seeking judicial review. Second, if Snowden revealed the programs to an attorney, he would have been immediately charged. This is an Administration that put reporters under surveillance for speaking with leakers. It is also the Administration that has forced courts to dismiss dozens of public interest lawsuits by classifying the evidence needed to establish standing or the merits of the case. This includes the greatest victory of his Administration in killing the Clapper challenge (that’s right the same guy who lied to Congress recently). The Obama Administration succeeded in getting the Court to reject the standing of civil liberties groups and citizens to challenge the Obama Administration’s surveillance programs. President Obama has long been criticized for his opposition to such lawsuits and his Justice Department has continued a successful attack on the ability of citizens to challenge the unconstitutional actions of their government in the war on terror. The 5-4 opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. insulated such programs from judicial review in yet another narrowing of standing rules. (After claiming that such surveillance programs were too classified to be discussed in courts, they then a few months later discussed such programs in the public only after Snowden’s disclosures).
The level of disingenuous arguments coming out of the Administration now amounts nothing short of open contempt for the public and its intelligence. With both parties working to support the effort, it could well succeed. However, the degree to which Obama feels free to make such transparent arguments show how little he has to fear from contradiction in the media or in Congress. It is simply a problem of optics with a public that still feels uncomfortable with the expanding Imperial President established in the last decade. It is hard to get a public back to sleep when they wake up in a nightmare. That is when you have to tell them soothing stories.