(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Barack Obama on Friday said former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked details of secret U.S. surveillance programs, was not a patriot. The president also spoke about declining U.S.-Russia relations and criticized that country's anti-gay laws.
"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, according to a transcript released by his office.
The president added there were better avenues available for reforms. "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, because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn't require, potentially, some additional reforms," he said.
Obama pointed out that Snowden has been charged with three felonies. "If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case."
However, the president admitted, "Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives."
Obama claimed that safeguards were in place, but also acknowledged there was need for more transparency. He mentioned four specific steps, "not all- inclusive, but some specific steps that we're going to be taking very shortly to move the debate forward."
The president said he will work with Congress to bring reforms in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows for the collection of telephone records. "Second, I'll work with Congress to improve the public's confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
Obama stressed "we can and must be more transparent," saying he has directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible. "Fourth, we're forming a high level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking for a new era."
He said he is mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas "because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness, because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation; it's the way we do it, with open debate and democratic process."
However, the president went on to say that Snowden's act triggered "a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through – and I'd sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through."
Snowden, who worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, fled to Hong Kong on May 20, and took responsibility for leaking information about secret U.S. programs that collect data on all phone calls made on the Verizon network, as well as the Internet data of foreigners from major Internet companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Snowden then moved to Russia.
"My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them," Snowden earlier told British newspaper The Guardian, which was the first to publicly identify him at his own request. Snowden also leaked information to The Washington Post.
"Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest," Snowden said.
Obama on Friday also spoke about on the United States' relations with Russia, which has granted Snowden temporary asylum.
"When President Putin, who was prime minister when Medvedev was president, came back into power, I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia. And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues – with mixed success."
However, Obama said it is not appropriate to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia over its new law that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" that could result in arrest or fines. "We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed," he said.
"Nobody's more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia, but as I said just this week, I've spoken out against that not just with respect to Russia, but a number of other countries where we continue to do work with them, but we have a strong disagreement on this issue," the president added.
Obama said he is looking forward to "some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there." If Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, "then that would probably make their team weaker."