Obama moves to quell doubts over domestic surveillance

The administration suggests further review, but no changes to spying capabilities yet

Obama answers questions during a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Barack Obama announced a series of moves Friday to reassure Americans and the global community about the U.S. government's wide-ranging domestic surveillance activities, which, as revealed in a series of Guardian reports this summer, includes the collecting of the communications records of millions of Americans.

Obama said he will work with members of Congress to make changes to the provision of the Patriot Act that allows federal agencies to carry out the surveillance programs, with privacy concerns in mind. The president also said he would support adding an adversarial privacy advocate to the secret court proceedings that authorize the National Security Agency's activities, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Currently, the hearings only involve a government lawyer asking for a warrant to collect records and a judge granting the request.

The steps taken together do not represent any significant changes to the programs yet — the government will continue to collect phone and Internet records — but instead illustrate Obama's desire for further review, in response to the backlash the administration faced after the scope of the programs was revealed.

The suggested reforms also fall far short of the so-called "Amash amendment," a measure which would have limited federal agencies to collecting the records of only people under investigation. That proposal narrowly failed to clear the House of Representatives last month.  

The president made clear that he personally believes that the programs are necessary in preventing terrorist attacks and already include safeguards to protect civil liberties.

"A general impression has, I think, taken hold, not only among the American public but also around the world, that somehow we're out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it," Obama said, adding, "Now, that's not the case."

Obama noted that he erred in assuming that the traditional system of checks and balances would be enough to allay Americans' concerns about the infringement of their privacy.

"It's not enough for me to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence with them as well," Obama said.

Obama said that he has asked the intelligence community to declassify the legal underpinning of the surveillance programs as well as any other documents that shine a light on their procedures and processes. In addition, he will convene a group of high-level outside experts to evaluate the use and effectiveness of the government's technological capabilities. They will present an interim report by September and a full report by the end of the year.  

Although the debate over the surveillance programs was initially sparked by disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Obama clarified that the administration thinks the leaks were damaging to the tenor of the conversation about privacy.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said. "I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made his leaks. My preference, and I think the American people's preference, would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws, a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place."

Snowden faces three felony counts if he does return to the U.S. Obama said Snowden should return and face his day in court, just like any other American charged with wrong-doing should do.

Obama also spoke about the U.S.' relationship with Russia, a day after he canceled his trip to St. Petersburg to meet with President Vladimir Putin, a move made partly in response to Russia granting Snowden asylum last week.

"The latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues where, you know, it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause," Obama said. "We don't consider that strictly punitive."

Asked to confirm a series of reported drone strikes carried out in Yemen over the last several weeks, Obama would not comment except to say the fight against terrorism was ongoing.

"I will not have a discussion about operational issues," he said.

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