Former government contractor Edward Snowden has been widely credited with kick-starting a debate about government surveillance programs when he began his massive series of disclosures about government spying programs in June.
President Obama argued on Thursday, however, that Snowden’s leaks “shed more heat than light” on the complicated relationship between privacy and security.
The comments, made as Mr. Obama was outlining a far-reaching series of changes to the government’s surveillance architecture, seemed to downplay the role Snowden played in elevating the surveillance debate.
“I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty,” the president said. “What I did not know at the time is that within weeks of my speech, an avalanche of unauthorized disclosures would spark controversies at home and abroad that have continued to this day.”
The government has charged Snowden with espionage, among other crimes, and “given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or motivations,” Mr. Obama said.
Still, he condemned Snowden for sensationalizing what could have been a sober, circumspect discussion about the way forward for U.S. intelligence services.
“I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” Mr. Obama said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy.”
“Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come,” he added.
In reaction to Mr. Obama’s speech, Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy organization Wikileaks who helped publish a previous series of unauthorized disclosures, defended Snowden on CNN and said the president had been dragged “kicking and screaming” into the surveillance debate.
Assange argued the president would not have given his speech – or significantly altered U.S. surveillance practices – “were it not for the actions of Edward Snowden.”
He characterized the proposed reforms as “weak,” adding, “We heard a lot of lies in this speech by Obama.”
Still, Assange said Edward Snowden would be gratified to see that “at least there is 45 minutes of a president speaking about these issues.” He indicated the NSA leaker would respond to the president’s proposals early next week.