President Obama said the disclosures from national security Agency leaker Edward Snowden caused “unnecessary damage” and sidestepped a question about whether he would back amnesty or a plea bargain to bring him back to the U.S.
At his year-end news conference, Obama said he welcomed the debate about the right balance between national security and privacy concerns, but said Snowden's leaks were the wrong way to start the conversation.
“There was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage,” said Obama.
“I think that, as important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy,” he added.
Snowden, a former government contractor, leaked a number of classified documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance of phone and internet traffic. Snowden faces espionage and theft charges in the U.S. but fled to Russia, which granted him temporary asylum.
Asked about a deal that could bring Snowden back to the U.S., Obama said that his fate was in the hands of the judicial system.
“He is under indictment, charged with crimes, and that’s the province of the attorney general and ultimately a judge and jury.”
The head of the NSA task force investigating the leaks earlier this week suggested that he was open to the idea of offering Snowden amnesty in exchange for him returning to the U.S. or handing over any additional classified documents.
Obama, however, ducked questions on whether he would back that, saying only that the NSA official was not speaking for him.
The disclosures have led to international anger after reports that the U.S. had monitored the communications of foreign leaders and calls from civil libertarians to rein in the spy agency.
Obama is reviewing the recommendations from an outside panel that examined the NSA’s programs. The president said he will offer a “definitive statement” on which of the 46 recommendations he will adopt in January.