President Obama announced plans Friday to pursue reforms that would open the legal proceedings surrounding the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs to greater scrutiny, the administration’s most concerted response yet to a series of national security disclosures that have raised concerns from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
At his first full news conference in more than three months, Obama said he intends to work with Congress on proposals that would add an adversarial voice — effectively one advocating privacy rights — to the secret proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Several Democratic senators have proposed such a measure.
In addition, Obama said that he intends to work on ways to tighten one provision of the Patriot Act - known as Section 215 - that gives the government broader authority to obtain business phone data records. He announced the creation of a panel of outsiders -- former intelligence officials, civil liberty and privacy advocates, and others — to assess the programs and suggest changes by the end of the year.
(Read transcript of Obama’s news conference. )
“I’m also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness,” Obama said from the White House East Room. “In other words, it’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well.”
Obama spoke on the eve of a week-long vacation, and he struck a defiant tone in speaking about a range of issues over the hour-long news conference. The Gallup tracking poll shows that his public approval rating of 44 percent is near a 12-month low, and a mix of Republican opposition to his gun control legislation, public disclosure of the NSA’s vast surveillance programs, and a turbulent Middle East have complicated the early months of what he planned to be an ambitious second term.
He defended his signature health-care legilsation from Republican threats of repeal, expressed confidence over the eventual passage of immigration legislation, and noted the school-boy “slouch of his brusque Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with whom he recently canceled a summit scheduled for next month.
Obama also announced the release of a Justice Department analysis of the legal rationale underpinning the government’s most controversial surveillance programs, brought to light in June by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who was recently granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Obama rejected the characterization of Snowden as a “patriot,” even though his disclosures prompted the debate over the NSA’s surveillance programs that the president called for in May. He acknowledged, though, that “there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid, and passionate, response than if I had simply appointed this review board.”
“There were other avenues available for someone whose conscience was stirred and thought they needed to question government action,” Obama said, adding that if Snowden believes he was correct, he should return from Russia and defend himself in court.
The NSA, among the most secret institutions in government, also released a summary of the programs it operates under several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Patriot Act. Intelligence agencies will also set up a Web site with the goal of better explaining its legal authorities and actions.
“We can and must be more transparent,” Obama said.
Both documents were described by senior administration officials as steps to explain to the public what the government is — and is not — doing to track e-mail, sift through phone logs and monitor other communications, as technological advances improve spying capabilities and raise new privacy concerns. The administration has called the NSA’s surveillance programs essential to disrupting terrorist plots.
“We’ve done a lot to educate the public about both the value of this program and the fact that it does not involve the government accessing any content, for instance, listening to phone calls without a warrant,” said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the proposals. “But the president does believe that given the scale of the program and the collection under the program that there are understandable concerns about the potential for abuse.”
A former constitutional law lecturer who campaigned on a pledge to ensure that national security policy remained consistent with American laws and values, Obama has faced a public outcry, including from many in his own party, since the scope of the NSA’s surveillance and data-collection effort was revealed earlier this summer.