Revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs have seriously damaged America’s security and intelligence-gathering capabilities, President Obama said Friday during a press conference, acknowledging that changes would need to be made in the programs to win back sagging public trust in the government’s policies.
At the same time, Mr. Obama was firm in maintaining that NSA intelligence gathering is vital in keeping the terrorist threat at bay.
The president’s year-end press conference was sprinkled with laughter and seasonal well-wishing and covered Obamacare’s poor rollout, the health-care program overall, reasons for his planned absence from the Olympic Games in Sochi – and whether his sagging poll numbers reflected his “worst year” as president. But questions about surveillance and privacy resurfaced throughout.
Obama was asked how he viewed the NSA’s mass surveillance programs after a momentous week in which a presidential panel recommended scores of major changes, CEOs of Internet companies implored him to rein in the NSA, and a federal judge ruled that an NSA program that collects “metadata” on every American phone call likely is unconstitutional.
Referring specifically to the NSA’s metadata program, which stores data on every phone call made in America for five years, Obama defended the program while also promising to change it.
“I'm taking this very seriously,” Obama said, adding that the debate over the tradeoffs between privacy and security “needed to be had.”
“It’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data,” he continued. “But what is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that’s what the judge and the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we're taking those into account.”
But the president’s statement also appeared to run counter to FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court documents released in September. They included a harshly worded court opinion in which a federal judge berated the NSA for failing to conduct phone record searches in accord with legal guidelines meant to protect Americans’ privacy and for misleading the court that agency searches complied with those guidelines.
The US Department of Justice has also consistently defended its position categorizing metadata as business records in which there is no expectation of privacy, resting on a 1979 US Supreme Court ruling. But in his remarks Friday, the president acknowledged that high-speed computers can use the metadata to track individuals and violate privacy.
“The question we're going to have to ask is can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing,” he said. “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers, that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”
The president also acknowledged that the US would have to change its approach to spying abroad and set ground rules acceptable to longtime US allies – including France, Germany, and Spain.
“We've got to provide more confidence to the international community,” Obama said. “We do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans. We’ve had less legal constraint in terms of what we’re doing internationally….
“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he continued. “And the values that we’ve got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders – I think perhaps more systematically than we’ve done in the past.”
Acknowledging that the American public and Congress are in a surly mood after six months of news accounts detailing the massive sweep of NSA programs – all based on top-secret documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden – Obama said restoring trust in the NSA is vital.
“What is absolutely clear to me is that given the public debate that’s taken place and the disclosures that have taken place over the last several months, that this is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust,” Obama said.
It is possible that the phone metadata program would be kept, he said, but have the data held instead by phone companies rather than by the government – and that data searches would be subject to tighter scrutiny.
“That might cost more,” he said. “There might need to be different checks on how those requests are made. There may be technological solutions that have to be found to do that.”
Obama was asked whether he would he consider amnesty for Mr. Snowden, especially given recent comments by a senior NSA official to that effect.
After noting that he would not speak specifically about the case because Snowden is currently charged with crimes, he reflected on the irony that had put the US in the global lens instead of others conducting much more invasive surveillance against their own people.
“As a consequence of these disclosures, we've got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he's worried about very explicitly – engaging in surveillance of their own citizens, targeting political dissidents, targeting and suppressing the press – who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it's the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations,” Obama noted. “And that’s a pretty distorted view of what's going on out there.”
But it did not sound as if he had changed his mind on one major point – that US security had been compromised by the disclosures.
“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 US intelligence capabilities and US diplomacy,” he said. “But I will leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden's case.”