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Obama's Challenge: Answer Snowden Without Seeming To

President Obama sought to address concerns over NSA surveillance measures at a White House news conference on Friday.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama sought to address concerns over NSA surveillance measures at a White House news conference on Friday.

Heading into Friday's news conference, President Obama had a delicate balancing act before him: how to acknowledge widespread concerns about National Security Agency surveillance without in any way legitimizing the actions of leaker Edward Snowden.

The best course, the president decided, was to acknowledge that Snowden's revelations to some degree forced his administration to accelerate and expand a review of the federal government's surveillance activities.

But Obama wanted to make clear that he, not some random event, set in motion the administration's policy review — even before details of the NSA data gathering involving phone records and Internet communications became public.

The president sought to rip off the hero's mantle some have placed on Snowden after his leaks began appearing in the Guardian newspaper: "I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. ... The fact is, is that Mr. Snowden's been charged with three felonies."

It also was a fact, however, and Obama spoke to it, that Snowden's disclosures did push the administration in ways it would have avoided if it could have.

"There's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks 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."

The president reminded his audience of his May speech when he addressed the use of drones and targeted killings in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

It was then, before Snowden became a household name, that the president told the nation he had ordered a broad examination of the government surveillance.

But Obama's May message — the essence of which was "we've got this" — and the assurances since then clearly haven't tamped down enough of the fears or criticisms. Americans have become significantly less trusting of government assurances on civil liberties the more 9/11 recedes into the background.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found half of Americans approving government anti-terrorism programs that collect telephone and Internet data, with 44 percent disapproving.

But for the first time since Pew Research began tracking it in 2004, Americans expressed more concern about restrictions of civil liberties going too far than protection from terrorism.

And in a remarkable change since 2006, Pew found the same percentage of Democrats and Republicans — 38 percent — who agreed that the government's policies didn't go far enough to protect Americans. There was a 9-percentage point difference in 2006.

Part of what we seemed to be witnessing with Obama was the education of a president, and the difference between having the ultimate responsibility of protecting the nation and being a legislator in the policymaking process.

As Obama himself acknowledged again Friday, when he was a senator during the Bush administration, he thought somewhat differently.

"Now, keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs," he said. He gave the strong impression that knowing what he now knows from sitting in the Oval Office, his inclinations run in a different direction.

Still, he understood that though he may have thought the existing checks and balances were enough to assure Americans, he now realizes they're not. In explaining that he now gets it, the president arrived at what may have been one of the stranger metaphors he's used in some time, invoking the first lady and household chores.

"If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes — now, granted, in the White House, I don't do the dishes that much, but back in the day and she's a little skeptical, well, I'd like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it."

It was a jarring version of Ronald Reagan's "trust but verify" and a comparison unlikely to come out of the presidential cupboard again. But the point was made.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.