WASHINGTON – From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional, and it was critical to keeping the nation safe.
But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.
In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional – and by the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.
Either of those developments would have been enough to ratchet up the pressure on President Barack Obama, who must decide whether to stand behind the sweeping collection or dismantle it and risk blame if there is a terrorist attack.
Beyond that dilemma for the president, the decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon and the recommendations from the review panel shifted the footing of almost every major player in the surveillance debate.
NSA officials, who rarely miss a chance to cite Snowden’s status as a fugitive from the law, now stand accused of presiding over a program whose capabilities were deemed by the judge to be Orwellian and likely illegal.
Snowden’s defenders, on the other hand, have new ammunition to argue that he is more whistleblower than traitor.
Similarly, U.S. officials who have dismissed NSA critics as naive about the nature of the terrorist threat now face the findings of a panel, hand-picked by Obama, that has access to classified files.
A day after the panel’s report was made public, U.S. officials said its findings had stunned senior officials at the White House as well as at U.S. intelligence services, prompting a scramble to assess the potential effect of its proposals.
The president is faced with a program that has intelligence value but also has political liabilities, said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. Now that he has a set of recommendations from a panel he appointed, if he doesn’t follow them people are going to say, are they just for show?’ Or if he does follow them, he scales back a program that he supported.
Members of the panel met with Obama on Wednesday and said he was receptive to the group’s findings.
Obama didn’t say we accept this on the spot, Clarke said. But we didn’t get a lot of negative feedback. They’re going to talk to the agencies and see what the agencies’ objections are and then make their decisions.
White House officials declined to comment on specific recommendations Thursday, press secretary Jay Carney signaled that the administration remains reluctant to dismantle the data-collection program. The program is an important tool in our efforts to combat threats against the United States and the American people, Carney said.