Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Obama vows tweaks to make the NSA more transparent

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday sought to take control of the roiling debate over the National Security Agency's surveillance practices, releasing a more detailed legal justification for domestic spying and calling for more openness and scrutiny of the NSA's programs to reassure a skeptical public.

"It's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama said. "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 showed no inclination to curtail secret surveillance efforts. Rather, he conceded only a need for greater openness and safeguards to make the public "comfortable" with them.

In meeting threats to the country, Obama said, "we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms."

Obama made his remarks at a wide-ranging news conference on the eve of his summer vacation. He began with a lengthy statement about surveillance, and that was the focus of the nearly hourlong news conference.

Critics of the electronic spying said the president's approach was insufficient. Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that a program that collects records of every domestic phone call, which Obama made clear he intends to keep, must be shut down.

"These initial recommendations from Obama today, albeit welcome, are too little too late," Romero said.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, urged Obama not to let such criticism undermine the NSA's fundamental capabilities.

"Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program," said the spokesman, Brendan Buck. "Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face."

Obama portrayed some of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks as having been reported in "the most sensationalized manner possible" and parceled out to "maximize attention" in "dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways."

"If you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying U.S. Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably people would be concerned," he said.

"To others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," he said. "Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies. It's true we have significant capabilities. What's also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think to do."

Obama said he wanted to work with Congress to modify the phone log program — but in what he said would be an "appropriate" way. He listed as examples of those steps establishing more oversight and auditing how the database is used.

The president threw his support behind a proposal to change the procedures of the secret court that approves electronic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying an adversarial lawyer should make arguments opposing the Justice Department when the court is considering whether to approve broad surveillance programs.

The administration also released a 22-page, unclassified "white paper" explaining in greater detail why the government believes that its bulk collection of domestic phone logs is lawful. At the same time, the NSA released a seven-page paper outlining its role and authorities. The agency is creating a full-time civil-liberties and privacy officer, Obama said, and next week it will open a website designed to explain itself better to the public.

The news conference also dwelled on Snowden's temporary refugee status in Russia, and the cooling relationship with the Putin government.

Asked whether the steps on surveillance he was taking amounted to a vindication of Snowden's leaks, Obama rejected that notion. He said that Snowden should have gone to the congressional intelligence committees with any concerns he had rather than "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."

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said.

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