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Snowden revelations force Obama's hand on surveillance program

Emphasizing that NSA leaker Edward Snowden isn't a patriot, President Obama said he had called for a review of surveillance operations well before Snowden leaked any information. The new reforms will call for additional transparency and create a task force of private citizens to review the NSA's surveillance programs. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

Analysis -- NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations have forced President Barack Obama’s hand, leading the president to announce new reforms of the government’s classified surveillance programs.

After his administration issued repeated defenses of a National Security Agency monitoring program that collects Americans’ phone and Internet data, Obama announced during a press conference Friday afternoon that reforms to the system will make the collection activities more transparent and "give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse." 

Obama said the changes will include changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court system -- which currently greenlights requests for data gathering --  as well as the creation of both an internal NSA position devoted to privacy and an external working group to evaluate transparency in the program.  Officials will also launch a new website next week that will serve as “a hub for further transparency” for interested members of the public.

President Obama described his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a Friday press conference, saying their talks are "candid" and "blunt." He also emphasized he will not boycott the Olympics as a result of Russia's anti-gay laws. The best message is for gay and lesbian athletes to come home with the gold, Obama said. In other news, the State Department will reopen some of the U.S. embassies that had been close in response to a terror threat. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance by governments, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspects of our lives," he said. 

Obama's announcement comes even as Snowden -- the defense-contractor-turned-fugitive who released information to reporters about the NSA’s monitoring programs -- has been charged with theft of government property and two offenses under U.S. espionage law.

He continues to evade extradition to the United States under a temporary asylum granted by the Russian government  – an agreement that prompted Obama to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in protest.


Snowden has generated strong feelings in the wake of disclosures, with many lawmakers decrying him as treasonous for releasing the information while others have used the case to press their concerns about how the government is watching American citizens.

Obama bluntly rejected the idea Friday that Snowden's actions were patriotic. 

"No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden is a patriot," he said, adding that he would have preferred a "lawful, orderly" debate over privacy concerns rather than finger-pointing in the wake of the leaks. 

But while the president has declined in the past to say whether he considers Snowden a “whistleblower” as supporters of the alleged leaker claim, Snowden’s actions were at the very least a catalyst for the coming reforms, which he says will establish additional layers of oversight to reign in possible abuses of the NSA practices.

Obama defended the existing program as recently as Tuesday, stating flatly during an interview with comedian Jay Leno that “we don’t have a domestic spying program.”

Answering a question from NBC's Chuck Todd, President Obama says that a review of intelligence gathering was already underway, and that Edward Snowden should have used alternative methods to have his grievances heard.

“But,” he added, “what I've said before I want to make sure I repeat, and that is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy.  None of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers.”

Obama said Friday that he remains confident that the NSA is not abusing the information it collects but argued that the reforms will help assure the American people that their privacy will not be violated. 

"The fact that I said that the programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse -- that continues to be true without the reforms," he said. "The question is 'how do I make the American people more comfortable?'"

And, at the moment, polling shows that’s not the case.

A NBC/WSJ poll last month showed that 56 percent of Americans say they're worried the United States will go too far in violating privacy rights. That’s a dramatic shift from the national environment after the 9/11 terror attacks, when 55 percent of Americans said they worried that the United States would not go far enough in monitoring potential terrorists who live in the United States.

That poll also showed that only 11 percent of Americans said they viewed Edward Snowden positively, versus 35 percent who said they viewed him negatively.

On Tuesday, Obama declined to comment at length on Snowden’s status, saying it’s important not to “prejudge” the case. But the president said that existing whistleblower protections could have offered Snowden an avenue to report what he believed were inappropriate uses of Americans’ data without jeopardizing national security.

He repeated that sentiment Friday, saying that Snowden is welcome to a fair trial in the United States if he believes his actions were justified. 

"If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like very American citizen, he can come here before the court with a lawyer and make his case," Obama said. 

But regardless of how Obama, the public or the law view the 30 year old former contractor, Snowden continues to be problematic for the State Department and the rest of the Obama administration.

His asylum in Russia demonstrated the fraying relationship between the United States and Putin’s government, and it remains unclear whether he will release more information that intelligence officials would consider a setback to anti-terrorism efforts.

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