The President’s Speech -- A Striking Omission

By John Bellinger
Sunday, January 19, 2014, 12:52 PM

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial about the President’s speech faults the President for failing to give credit to Edward Snowden:

One of his biggest lapses was his refusal to acknowledge that his entire speech, and all of the important changes that he now advocates, would never have happened without the disclosures by Mr. Snowden, who continues to live in exile and under the threat of decades in prison if he returns to this country.

I would make exactly the opposite comment.   In a speech that was otherwise reasonably balanced and appropriate in tone and substance, the one striking omission was a clear statement by President Obama about the damage to our national security caused by Snowden’s disclosures and a similarly emphatic statement that those who take it upon themselves to disclose our nation’s intelligence, diplomatic, and military secrets (like Snowden or Bradley Manning) should be condemned, not lauded.  A forceful statement by the President would help to prevent future damaging disclosures by self-appointed whistleblowers.

The President devoted only four cursory and conditional sentences to these issues in a very long speech:

Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not 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 might not fully understand for years to come.

I can certainly understand why the President would want to make only glancing reference to Edward Snowden.  The President should not stoop to feed Snowden's sense of self-importance by focusing on him personally.  (In an excellent recent op-ed entitled “Edward Snowden, the insufferable whistleblower”, the Washington Post's otherwise generally politically liberal Ruth Marcus called Snowden "smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, overwrought.")  Moreover, given the open criminal investigation, the President would not want specifically to label Snowden as a criminal or a traitor.

But, without focusing on Snowden as a person, the President should have used  the bully pulpit of a major Presidential address to speak more clearly about the consequences and implications of Snowden’s actions.  Unlike the British intelligence chiefs, who in testimony before Parliament last November said that Snowden’s leaks have been “very damaging” and have “put our operations at risk,” the President did not directly assess the damage caused by Snowden.   And even if there were legal reasons not to do so, each of his other statements seems very carefully hedged.   He says our “nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those trusted with our nation’s secrets.”   He conditionally says “if any individual who objects to government policy….”   He further says that the disclosures reveal methods that “could impact our operations in ways that we might not fully understand.”

I certainly hope that the President’s brief and half-hearted statements were not motivated by any political desire not to offend those who share the view of the New York Times editorial board that Snowden is a hero.

Even if one thinks that Snowden raised legitimate concerns about the Section 215 metadata program, or that he stirred up a useful public debate about the balance between security and privacy, there is absolutely no justification for him to have stolen 1.7 million classified intelligence files and to have distributed many of them to journalists in multiple countries.

President Obama still commands great respect both as President and as a thoughtful person, both in the United States and around the world.   In order to deter future would-be Snowdens and Mannings who might otherwise draw the wrong conclusions about the net value of their disclosures, he should have taken advantage of his position to state emphatically that these disclosures have hurt the security of the United States and our allies and should not be applauded.  It is not too late for him to do so.