WASHINGTON – The father of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, complained Sunday about the “political theater” surrounding his son’s disclosures of secret surveillance programs and dismissed President Obama’s proposed reforms as “superficial.”
Lon Snowden said he was disappointed with Obama’s promises at a news conference on Friday to reform spying practices and credited his son with spurring the president to act.
“I believe that's driven by his clear understanding that the American people are absolutely unhappy with what they've learned and that more is going to be forthcoming,” Snowden said in an exclusive interview on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
“I believe much of what he suggested is superficial,” Snowden said.
Other critics agreed Sunday that the president might not have acted at all if not for the Snowden leaks. Among the disclosures, Snowden revealed information showing the NSA has assembled a massive database of telephone call logs of virtually every American.
But there was considerable debate about whether the president’s pledge to reform NSA surveillance programs was mainly for show and whether it will quell public concern.
After weeks of controversy over the spy programs, Obama proposed to put in place greater oversight, more transparency and safeguards against abuse. He also proposed creating a role for a civil liberties advocate to ensure the government will no longer be the only side represented when its requests to conduct surveillance are weighed by the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Obama is also considering changes to the law to limit how much information on Americans the NSA can get and how long it can retain the data.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, said he thinks the president’s reforms are “window dressing.”
“The problem, fundamentally, is he’s failed to explain these programs, which are lawful, which have saved lives,” he said, “and now he’s in a bit of a mess.”
But McCaul said he worries that Obama’s idea of adding a privacy advocate to the Foreign Service Intelligence Act court would slow down investigations.
“I’m in a unique position to talk about this,” McCaul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I actually applied for FISA warrants as a counterterrorism prosecutor, and I think the idea of having a public defender . . . would slow down the efficacy and efficiency of our counterterrorism investigation.”
Former NSA director Michael Hayden says he took Obama to mean he wouldn’t really “operationally change” things at the NSA.
Like McCaul, though, he raised concerns about the effect of a privacy advocate before the FISA court.
“Looking through your windscreen when you lay this on, it just looks like more thorough oversight,” Hayden said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “When you’re looking in your rearview mirror after the next successful attack, this runs the danger of looking like bureaucratic layering.”
In the days since Snowden accepted temporary asylum in Russia, avoiding return to the U.S. to face charges for violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property, supporters and critics have argued about whether he is a traitor or whistleblower, a defector or a patriot.
Obama on Friday said that, whatever Snowden claims to have done, he isn’t a “patriot.”
Snowden’s father said Sunday he thinks the president’s public pronouncements have made it difficult for his son to get fair treatment if he returns to the United States.
“They have poisoned the well, so to speak, in terms of a potential jury pool,” he said on ABC.
“As a father, I want my son to come home if I believe that the justice system that we should be afforded as Americans is going to be applied correctly,” Snowden said.
Edward Snowden’s lawyer, Bruce Fein, said he has secured visas for a visit but declined to say when he and Snowden’s father will travel.
The family has told the Department of Justice that they would like to discuss the conditions under which Edward Snowden would return to the United States.
One thing they have requested is a “venue that was impartial,” Fein said, “because of the history of the Eastern District of Virginia being a graveyard for defendants.”