Obama promises to boost oversight of NSA surveillance operations

President Obama says he had called for a 'thorough review' of NSA surveillance even before Edward Snowden's actions, but that the leaks 'triggered a much more rapid and passionate response.' 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama answers questions during his news conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday. The president said he'll work with Congress to change the oversight of some of the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance programs and name a new panel of outside experts to review technologies.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
In his last press briefing before vacation, President Obama speaks to reporters in the East Room of the White House on Friday.

In a move tinged with irony, President Obama announced a series of measures Friday aimed at boosting oversight and transparency in America’s national security surveillance apparatus.

The president said he had called for a review of surveillance operations before Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, had leaked aspects of the programs to news media. And thus, he suggested, his new measures did not provide justification for Mr. Snowden’s actions.

“No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Mr. Obama said in a press conference in the ornate East Room of the White House, as he prepared to leave for summer vacation.

But Snowden did have an impact, he acknowledged. His leaks “triggered a much more rapid and passionate response” than would have been the case had he not leaked the information, Obama said.

“I actually think we would have gotten to the same place and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country,” the president said.

Obama announced four new steps:

• Reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act that would enhance oversight, transparency, and constraints on the program, which collects telephone records but not the content of calls.

• Changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) – the federal court that requires judicial review of certain intelligence activities – such that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary. The goal is to make sure that concerns over civil liberties are given voice.

• Greater transparency of the government’s data collection activities under Section 215 by making public their legal rationale.

• Creation of a website by the intelligence community that informs the public about what it does and does not do – and why.

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

The head of the American Civil Liberties Union welcomed Obama’s proposed reforms, but called them “not nearly sufficient.” Anthony Romero called on the president and Congress to reform all the government’s surveillance programs, not just the one mentioned Friday.

Obama stiffened on the subject of Snowden, who faces felony charges of espionage and theft over his leaks and recently received temporary asylum in Russia.

“If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer, and make his case,” Obama said.

The Snowden affair has added a chill to US-Russian relations, sparking the cancellation of a summit between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September. Obama and President Putin have never had a warm relationship, and the US president took a few digs at Putin in his remarks to reporters.

“I don't have a bad personal relation with Putin,” Obama said. “When we have conversations, they're candid. They're blunt. Oftentimes, they're constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”

“Candid” and “blunt” are often diplomatic code for “not much fun.” Still, he said, their conversations are often productive.

Russia faces a choice, he said – looking forward or backward. When Putin returned to power, Obama said that he started hearing more anti-American rhetoric that played into the old cold war stereotypes. And he portrayed the Russian leadership as he often does the Republicans: If the US (or Obama) is for it, then Russia (or the Republicans) will be against it.

Obama became most animated when the question of health-care reform came up. A key feature of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the individual mandate to purchase insurance – begins implementation on Oct. 1, when open enrollment starts for the online marketplaces.

Opponents of the ACA, or Obamacare, have been actively encouraging the uninsured not to enroll, in an effort to kill the program before it gets off the ground, he said, dubbing this idea the Republicans' “holy grail.”

“The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care,” Obama said, with an edge in his voice.

He also expressed astonishment over a group of Republican senators who are threatening a government shutdown if Obamacare is not defunded, when Congress takes up a measure to continue funding the government beyond Sept. 30.

“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” he said. “What you should be thinking about is how can we advance and improve ways for middle class families to have some security so that if they work hard, they can get ahead and their kids can get ahead.”

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