President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 promising to restore transparency to the federal government and roll back the Bush administration’s broad surveillance efforts. Now in the wake of revelations about two surveillance programs by a contractor for the National Security Agency, Obama is finding himself under pressure from left and right both to curb the programs and hold harmless the 29-year-old leaker, Edward Snowden.
More than 35,000 people signed a petition on the White House “We the People” website Monday for Obama to grant a full pardon for his actions. Another gathered 2,500 signatures calling on Obama to hold a live debate with Snowden about the programs, which collect information on all telephone metadata and monitor foreign Internet communications. And more than 7,500 signed a petition calling on the federal government to repeal the PATRIOT Act, which authorized the surveillance programs.
Prior to taking office, Obama voted against extending the PATRIOT Act’s wiretapping provisions, which underpinned the programs, and in 2007 he voted against removing the need for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant for wiretapping abroad.
White House Press Secretary responded to reporters Monday on the petition, saying “I won’t comment specifically on an individual or his status.” White House policy dictates that a petition needs 100,000 signatures in 30 days to receive a White House response, though it is unlikely to be anything near what Snowden supporters are looking for. The White House has referred all comment on the investigation to the Department of Justice, which has begun a criminal investigation into the leak.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Sunday that the leaks harmed national security. “Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a “playbook” of how to avoid detection,” he said.
But the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which traditionally backs liberal candidates, launched a fundraising drive for Snowden’s criminal defense, declaring amid bipartisan congressional calls for prosecution that, “we can’t let this hero be treated as a villain[sic].”
Across the aisle, libertarian icon and former congressman Ron Paul lauded Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the privacy activist who writes for the Guardian, for their roles in bringing the NSA programs to the forefront.
“We should be thankful for individuals like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald who see injustice being carried out by their own government and speak out, despite the risk. They have done a great service to the American people by exposing the truth about what our government is doing in secret.”
With a coalition as diverse as Michael Moore and Glenn Beck behind Snowden, Snowden’s case will undoubtedly be a thorn in Obama’s side.
On Capitol Hill, the knives are out for Snowden and the pressure is on Obama to bring the full force of the U.S. government down on him. “I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calf.) told The Hill. “I think it’s an act of treason.”
The Obama administration has not traditionally needed all that much encouragement, initiating the broadest and most aggressive government leak probes in history. Obama’s administration has used the 1917 Espionage Act six times to prosecute leaks—twice as many times as all his predecessors have used it for that purpose.
He and his aides believe both surveillance programs are critically important to preventing terrorist attacks and must aggressively seek to punish leakers. But at the same time, American attitudes on the surveillance programs are mixed and sympathy for Snowden runs high among his most ardent supporters on an issue that may help define Obama’s legacy. In short, Obama is caught between a rock and a hard place.