WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Friday he would pursue reforms to open the legal proceedings surrounding government surveillance programs to greater scrutiny, the administration’s most concerted response yet to a series of disclosures about secret monitoring efforts.
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 — such as a lawyer assigned to advocate privacy rights — to the secret proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Several Democratic senators have proposed such changes to the court, which approves government requests for warrants and other collection efforts. Currently, the court only receives requests from the government without hearing any counterarguments, as is customary in virtually all of the U.S. judiciary.
In addition, Obama said he intends to work on ways to tighten one provision of the Patriot Act — known as Section 215 — that has permitted the government to obtain the phone records of millions of Americans. He also announced the creation of a panel of outsiders — former intelligence officials, civil liberties and privacy advocates, and others — to assess the programs and suggest changes by the end of the year.
“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said in the White House East Room. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
Obama spoke on the eve of a week’s vacation, and he struck a defiant tone in speaking about a range of issues over the hourlong news conference.
The Gallup tracking poll shows that his public approval rating of 44 percent is near a 12-month low.
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 National Security Agency’s surveillance and data-collection effort was revealed earlier this summer by The Washington Post and The Guardian, a British newspaper.He has defended the programs as essential to protecting the United States from foreign attack and continued to do so vigorously Friday, portraying the controversy as one of public perception rather than practice. Civil liberties advocates have called the programs overly intrusive, as technological advances improve spying capabilities and raise new privacy concerns at home and abroad.
In his introductory remarks, Obama 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 accelerated a debate over the NSA’s surveillance programs that the president called for in May. He acknowledged, “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.
“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 NSA, among the most secretive institutions in government, also released Friday a summary of the programs it operates under several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. Intelligence agencies will also set up a website with the goal of better explaining their legal authorities and actions.
“All these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values,” Obama said. “And to others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.”
Privacy and civil liberties advocates received Obama’s proposals coolly, calling them a modest start.
“While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement that also urged Obama to “release the relevant FISA Court opinions and agency memos that have created a body of secret law that is far removed from public oversight and adequate congressional review.”
On July 25, the House of Representatives rejected a bid to cut funding for some NSA programs by a surprisingly narrow 205-217 vote, with an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal members of Obama’s Democratic Party voicing concern about citizens’ privacy.
A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, whose support will be critical to any reforms, criticized Obama.
“Much of any public concern about this critical program can be attributed to the president’s reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it,” said the spokesman, Brendan Buck.
“Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat who has led calls for reform of surveillance out of concern for civil liberties, said that Obama’s proposals were “certainly encouraging.”