Obama Vies with Snowden for Public Support on NSA Leaks

President Barack Obama and former national security contractor Edward Snowden are mounting public relations campaigns over a classified U.S. surveillance program leaked by Snowden, with Obama promising to declassify details and Snowden seeking vindication of his motives.

Obama, in an interview with Charlie Rose taped June 16 and airing last night, said the intelligence community, acting on his direction, is in the process of determining “how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program.”

Snowden pushed to rally support for his cause yesterday in a public online question-and-answer session.

While Obama is trying to assure Americans that the telephone and e-mail surveillance programs targeting terrorists and overseen by a secret court aren’t an undue invasion of the average citizens’ privacy, he said people need a fuller picture than what Snowden has provided.

“Frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story,” the president said.

The president has asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to determine what additional information to make public about the programs, according to an administration official who shared the information on condition of anonymity. Obama plans to meet within days with a privacy and civil liberties oversight board he designated as part of an outreach on privacy protection in the digital age, the official said.

Snowden’s Chat

Snowden spent more than 90 minutes answering questions on the website of the UK newspaper, The Guardian, with criticism for Obama’s policies, a rebuke of the policy restrictions on domestic surveillance and jabs at the media and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Intentional or not, it also may have served a legal purpose: the softening of a potential jury pool should Snowden be charged and extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.

“He’s going to argue he was a whistleblower and try to get out from the legal technicalities of being found guilty,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor now with international investigations firm Kroll Inc. “That’s an argument to the jury to not send this man to jail, even though technically what he did was against the law.”

Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. contractor, is facing parallel investigations by the Justice Department and the intelligence community for his decision to disclose two wide-ranging classified surveillance programs. Lawmakers have called for his prosecution and Attorney General Eric Holder has said he would “hold accountable” the individual responsible for the leaks.

Public Opinion

A USA Today/Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of those surveyed said Snowden should be prosecuted for disclosures to two newspapers that lifted the veil on two National Security Agency surveillance programs, compared with 38 percent who said he shouldn’t face charges.

Snowden, 29, said yesterday that statements by public officials may be an effort to deliberately sabotage his chances at a fair trial in the U.S.

“The U.S. government, just as they did with other whistleblowers, immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home, openly declaring me guilty of treason and that the disclosure of secret, criminal, and even unconstitutional acts is an unforgivable crime,” Snowden said, according to the Guardian-sponsored online chat.

He also defended and justified his actions, saying he didn’t release details on U.S. operations or assets dealing with “legitimate targets” and that he has no plans to provide information to the Chinese or other foreign governments.

Little Impact

Snowden’s effort to paint the U.S. jury pool as tainted would likely have little impact on any extradition proceedings or decisions in Hong Kong, where he traveled on May 20 in advance of stories published based on his leaks, according to Jacques Semmelman, a partner at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle LLP in New York.

“It’s on very weak grounds trying to argue that a U.S. jury cannot be fairly selected for his case,” Semmelman, a former federal prosecutor, said in a telephone interview. “That’s not his most compelling argument to avoid extradition.”

Instead, Semmelman said, Snowden’s best defense from an extradition request under the treaty signed between the U.S. and Hong Kong would be for his case to be considered a political offense -- something that Hong Kong officials could cite in a rejection of the request.

Overcoming Hurdles

Any request will have to wait for the filing of charges -- something American prosecutors are in the midst of assembling, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Though prosecutors are aiming for a quick process, there are hurdles to overcome, including the need to file all charges before the extradition request. Prosecutors rarely can file new or amended charges once an individual has been extradited, the people said.

The Obama administration has confirmed the existence of a program compelling Verizon Communications Inc. to provide the NSA with data on all its customers’ telephone use.

The administration also has confirmed the existence of a separate program, called Prism, that monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.

Once charges are filed, the U.S. can ask Hong Kong to detain Snowden for as many as 60 days before making a formal extradition request, according to a treaty between the two governments.

Mustering Support

In advance of those charges, Snowden may be trying to “drum up” public support because he realizes the U.S. will probably accuse him of breaking the law and seek to extradite him, said Eric Fiterman, a former FBI agent who founded Washington-based cybersecurity company Spotkick.

“Defendants rarely do themselves any good by speaking too much, but his is surgical,” said Cramer, who runs Kroll’s Chicago office. “It’s clearly meant to get out from under treason.”

Snowden criticized Cheney and U.S. lawmakers who have denounced the leaks. He called on Obama to “appeal for a return to sanity” and said he would “advise he personally call for a special committee to review these interception programs.”

“There can be no faith in government if our highest offices are excused from scrutiny -- they should be setting the example of transparency,” Snowden said.

Disclosures Protested

The disclosures, however, have drawn the ire of U.S. lawmakers and Obama administration officials, even as they have raised questions about the programs they uncovered.

Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, said the former government contractor ought to “look an American jury in the eye” and explain why he disclosed details of secret programs.

“If he’s not a traitor, then he’s pretty darned close to it,” Chambliss, of Georgia, said June 16 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We know now that because of his disclosure the terrorists, the bad guys, around the world are taking some different tactics and they know a little bit more about how we’re gathering information on them.”

For the moment, Snowden remains free, telling participants in the question-and-answer session yesterday that he chose Hong Kong as his destination in part because he believed the legal structure would allow him to stay out of custody, at least for a time.

“It would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside of prison than in it,” Snowden said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.